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Henley Leadership Group Blog

When Unlearning Is More Valuable Than Learning In Leadership

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For decades I’ve banged the drum of ongoing learning for leaders. But now I’m starting to see that unlearning may actually be more important. I was at a barbeque over the Fourth of July and got into a rather heated discussion about the use of pronouns after a person’s name (she, hers, her). To my sixty-something friend, none of it made sense. “I mean, isn’t it obvious?” he said. “Aren’t you born either a boy or a girl?” 

I paused. I could see his genuine confusion. I didn’t argue or defend or fight or explain. I stayed connected to him. After all, this is a man I care about. He’s a good dad, a savvy businessman, a loyal friend. He’s educated. But his education may be failing him. 

What he thinks he knows, what has been true for most of his life, is now being challenged. It’s murky, less crisp. And he’s bucking against this. He’s arguing and dug in. This is where unlearning becomes important. 

Can you unlearn things you would have bet the ranch on? 

Since the Black Lives Matter movement began in May of 2020, I have been steadily unlearning the American history I was taught. There is a whole other version of history that wasn’t taught — one that includes people of color and events so brutal it is hard to breathe just reading about them. 

I am unlearning and expanding my view of how the world was made. How we got here. The events that led up to this moment in time. Of course, there are no absolute truths. We all have different versions of history, and our perspectives are all valid. Holding a willingness to include more perspectives as valid seems to be one way through. 

Laurie Bennett writes, “If there’s anything that gets the proverbial goat, it’s being asked to unlearn something you hold to be true. If you don’t believe me, ask Darwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., the people involved in the Middle East Peace Process, #MeToo, a non-binary friend.”

 In our model of leadership, we point to an outmoded habit of arrogance, assuming you know something. Assuming you have a hold on reality and truth with a capital T. 

When a leader acts like they are super sure about something, they convey inflexibility, which discourages debate and dialogue, whether they are aware of that fact or not. If anything, a leader who radiates assuredness communicates to his/her followers that they need to agree with their boss — even if they disagree — or remain silent. This leads to compliance and complicity — even willful blindness, which can lead people to not bringing up big problems when they see them.

In his article “The Simple Difficulty of Being a CEO,” leadership consultant Patrick Lencioni refers to this trait as “invulnerability” and says it’s one of the five biggest temptations of CEOs that can lead to their failure. 

“The old adage ‘Don’t let them see you sweat’ may be appropriate for actors or salespeople, but for leaders it’s a problem,” he writes. “Arrogance hampers your ability to build trust among your people.”

The result, Lencioni says, is that leaders don’t admit to being wrong, a behavior that employees then mirror and that then becomes “a never-ending posturing exercise, where real dialogue dies.”

The longer a successful leader has been around, the more his or her “knowing” will grow, and the more that assuredness will tune out radically different thinking, approaches and ideas. 

Don’t be that leader.

Here are three shifts you can make to continue learning and unlearning:

Shift #1: Engage in continual learning — and never assume you are done learning. 

How? Ask open-ended questions that begin with “What” or “How might we?” 

Shift #2: Be present and “quiet the chatter.” 

How? Keep a learning journal about critical events or communications that challenge your thinking and your beliefs. Write them down and reflect on what there might be for you to learn or unlearn.

Shift #3: Welcome diversity in thinking and approach.

How? Immerse yourself in a divergent perspective to gain a deeper understanding of it. Follow new people on social media, watch different news channels, keep your mind wide open. 

Remember the phrase “Minds, like parachutes, work best when open.” You may have to unlearn what you thought was sure in order to get your mind open.

Previously published on Forbes