Learning Mindset: How Leaders Develop Through Experience

A Learning Mindset is an attitude that predisposes you to be open to new experiences, to believe you can and will learn, and to intentionally grow and develop from your experience.

Many organizations today are operating in an environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and as a result, their leaders likely are struggling with major challenges they never had to deal with before. They must be able to quickly size up people and situations, make tough decisions and take appropriate action without complete information, and flexibly change on the fly in order to produce results in new, demanding, first-time situations.

Succeeding in such conditions requires leaders to actively and intentionally learn from their day-to-day experience. They must apply what they are learning to new challenging situations, and continue learning as they go forward. Unfortunately, the ability to learn from experience is a capability many leaders either take for granted or ignore outright. However, the leaders who consistently practice the skills and tactics of learning from experience are significantly better equipped to deal with the complexities and challenges of modern business life. To effectively grow, learn, and development through experience, leaders must have a Learning Mindset.

What Is a “Learning Mindset”?

A Learning Mindset is an attitude that predisposes you to be open to new experiences, to believe you can and will learn, and to intentionally grow and develop from your experience. It includes the set of assumptions and beliefs that govern how you think about and approach experience and opportunities, and whether you generally see them as opportunities to learn and develop, as well as your typical affective stance toward learning, your emotional state or feeling about learning, learning situations, and new experiences.

It’s helpful to think of a Learning Mindset as a set of prescription eyeglasses through which you view the world and your experience. If I operate with a mindset that leads me to view work projects or tasks as things I need to do in order to fulfill my job responsibilities and to succeed, then I most likely will focus on producing the desired results “on time and under budget,” using my current knowledge and skills to accomplish the goal. Now, these are good things to achieve. But if I operate with a Learning Mindset, I am more likely to view work projects and tasks as opportunities to learn something new, and I will focus on expanding my current knowledge and skills as I take creative action to produce the desired results. The conceptual lens of a Learning Mindset leads you to see every experience as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop.

Leaders who have a Learning Mindset see opportunities to learn in all aspects of their work life, and tend to learn more than those who are closed to learning. Research has shown that leaders whose attitude or stance toward learning embodies…

  • A belief in their own learning and growth potential
  • Openness to experience
  • Motivation, willingness, and desire to learn
  • Curiosity about others and how they do what they do
  • An attitude of discovery and exploration
  • An intention and willingness to gain something positive from experience

… experience more growth and development than leaders who do not have this attitude toward learning.

A Learning Mindset Leads to “Learning Practices”

“What can I do to ‘get better’ as a leader?” This is a question leaders frequently ask after receiving 360-degree feedback or attending a training program. It’s one thing to know you need to “think more strategically” or improve at “giving performance feedback and coaching” to your direct reports. It’s something different to translate that into to practical actions you can take to bring about lasting change, growth, and development.

Since most of us spend more than 95 percent of our work time working, not in training programs or workshops, time on the job represents our best and most accessible opportunity to learn: from our day-to-day experience. We just need to know how to use our experience to grow and develop. This is where the Learning Practices come in. Learning Practices are actions you can take to accelerate and enhance your learning from experience. Your actions determine whether you proactively pursue learning in your day-to-day work life, or focus only on getting the job done. Leaders who consistently and rigorously use the Learning Practices learn significantly more, faster, while achieving better results. There are at least 10 (and possibly more) key learning practices that have significant potential for growing and accelerating your ability to learn from experience:

  1. Take responsibility for your own learning and development.
  2. Approach new assignments/opportunities with openness to experience and positive intention to learn.
  3. Seek and use feedback.
  4. Develop a clear understanding of your strengths and areas of development.
  5. Ask great questions and demonstrate curiosity.
  6. Listen transformatively (intently, deeply, empathically).
  7. Respond to experience with adaptability and flexibility.
  8. Actively reflect and practice mindfulness.
  9. Actively experiment with new approaches to learning.
  10. Closely observe and learn from others.

Activate Your Learning Mindset

It is easy to assume that you are operating with a Learning Mindset, when, in fact, you are not. Most of us live our lives on “automatic pilot,” rushing through the day making little or no conscious effort to learn from our experiences. To counteract this tendency, try these three steps:

1. Turn the switch to “on.” Make a choice to be mindfully aware of yourself as looking for opportunities to learn, grow, and develop from today’s experiences. Remind yourself during the day. Pay attention to how you respond to challenges and surprises.

2. Be intentional about learning. Make it your goal to learn from every aspect of your day-to-day experience. At the end of the day, take five minutes to reflect and identify what you learned. Make a note of that learning. Repeat daily.

3. Experiment and try different things. Resist the urge to criticize, judge, or push back on new and different ideas or ways of doing things. These three simple actions will begin to change the way you learn and lead your life.

As you face the challenges of leading in today’s world of increasing complexity, rapid change, and rising uncertainty, remember that the most effective leaders have the ability to transform their experiences into growth and development. And the greater the challenge, the more significant is the opportunity to develop as a leader. If you have a Learning Mindset and consistently and rigorously put the Learning Practices into action, you will learn significantly more, faster, and as a result, you’ll perform at a higher level and create greater value for your company and for yourself.

Steve Terrell, Ed.D., is founder of Aspire Consulting, specializing in global leadership development and learning from experience. Contact him at 757.647.2571, e-mail at steve@aspireconsulting.net, or on the Web at www.aspireconsulting.net.