How to Learn Like a Leader

You want to learn like a leader because leaders learn how to navigate the interpersonal pitfalls preventing them from making a difference. Similarly, professionals can learn how to navigate the career pitfalls preventing them from finding fulfillment. Career pitfalls include misplaced motivation, unfocused learning, and stunted growth. This post explores how learning like a leader helps professionals avoid these career pitfalls and find fulfillment.

John F. Kennedy said “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Leaders are driven by their vision of how to change things for the better in their chosen profession. Thus, leaders learn in a way that is targeted toward the knowledge and skills needed to realize their vision for improving things. A leader’s motivation to learn is their purpose to change things for the better.

Motivation to Learn to Avoid Misplaced Motivation

Misplaced motivation is when you follow another person’s motivation that you do not support. Some professionals succumb to misplaced motivation when they follow a superior even when their brain and heart is pulling them in a different direction. The leadership skill of finding motivation to learn takes critical thinking and buy-in.

The first step to learn like a leader is to find motivation to learn. Motivation to learn can come from a sense of urgency or a drive for high performance.

A couple of days ago the wind gusted so high on Lake Champlain that our dinghy was ripped from the davit system holding it out of the water along our dock. The dinghy was half suspended but filling with water and pounding against one of the dock’s pipe legs – not a pleasant sight for a boater to see. An hour later the dinghy was ripped from the second davit and pounding into shore. This is an example of an urgent situation motivating learning to discover what happened and how to fix the problem. My husband and I learned that the problem was not using full torque on the screws attaching the davit to the dock’s pipe legs. This is an example of urgency motivating learning.

Every morning when I wake up, I do three different puzzles to exercise my brain. One puzzle challenges my spatial skills, one puzzle challenges my math skills, and one puzzle challenges my language skills. I am motivated to do these puzzles every morning because I want my brain working at its best to deliver high-quality work for my clients every day. This is an example of a drive for high performance motivating learning.

The motivation to learn starts with a problem to solve, an opportunity to pursue, an improvement sought, or a result needed. If the problem, opportunity, improvement, or result is demanded by your boss or other senior leader, then there is a sense of urgency for learning. If the problem, opportunity, improvement, or result is motivated by a drive for high performance, then there are two proven ways to help you achieve high performance.

One way to achieve high performance is making time for what the late Stephen R. Covey called Quadrant II activities (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, Simon and Schuster, 1989). Quadrant II activities are work tasks that are not urgent but are important to supporting your goals and the goals of the organization. For example, if your goal is to form a steering committee, then you can recruit through your network and people you know. But a Quadrant II approach means recruiting the people who are best qualified to deliver the best outcomes. So, a Quadrant II approach might involve writing a charter for the steering committee, specifying the character and competency requirements for members, and enlisting senior leadership to nominate top candidates. Recruiting team members is a non-urgent task but is important to the quality of the team’s output.

A second way to achieve high performance is to produce results with high quality and high efficiency that benefit others according to Morten T. Hansen’s research on top performers (Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More by Morten T. Hansen, Simon and Shuster, 2018). An example of a basic performance goal for a human resources professional might be to ensure 70% of managers complete annual performance reviews. But, a high performer would ensure 70% of managers receive helpful feedback on how to improve. The basic performance goal does not benefit managers but the high performance goal does benefit managers.

The motivation to learn can be articulated in a purpose statement for the identified problem to solve, opportunity to pursue, improvement sought, or result needed. A purpose statement reflects your buy-in, provides a concise and compelling way to refresh your motivation to learn as needed, and enables sharing of that motivation with others. The format I use for a purpose statement is as follows:

To [topic or outcome], in order to [what needs to improve or change] so that [how the
improvement or change will benefit others].

Here is an example purpose statement for the problem of gaining sales from a new on-line course:

To initiate a revenue stream from an on-line course in order to demonstrate the value of
facilitation skills so that more leaders can increase their impact through the use of facilitation skills.

In this example, the outcome is to initiate a revenue stream from an on-line course for leaders to develop facilitation skills. In order to produce a revenue stream from an on-line course, marketing is needed that demonstrates the value of facilitation skills to leadership. If the on-line course for leaders to develop facilitation skills generates a revenue stream, then more leaders can increase their impact.

Learn Research to Avoid Unfocused Learning

Unfocused learning is doing learning required or suggested by others without thinking about how the learning will benefit you in your current situation or career. Some professionals do as much learning as possible to increase their chances for career advancement but are squandering time that could be spent on what really matters to them. The leadership skill of learn researching takes understanding the goal you want to achieve.

The second step to learn like a leader is research using the most efficient and effective path to identify and address learning needs for a specific problem, opportunity, improvement or result. Research helps leaders find proven or science-based approaches to identify learning needs and options to address learning needs. When I embark on research, I remember the wisdom of a talented market researcher named Maggie Baumann who said the following: “To save time and money, do secondary research first and primary research second.” Secondary research is educating yourself about how to address your specific problem, opportunity, improvement or result before talking to others for help or input. Primary research is talking to others either in-person or remotely or trying something new in the workplace with help from others. When you take the time to educate yourself about your specific problem, opportunity, improvement or result before talking to someone else about it, that person is more likely to be helpful and engaged.

Let’s use the following challenge as an example for researching a learning need:

To initiate a revenue stream from an on-line course in order to demonstrate the value of
facilitation skills so that more leaders can increase their impact through the use of facilitation skills.

Secondary research using Google on how to generate revenues from on-line courses led to a process used by Julia Siwert to help experts increase sales from on-line courses. Not only did the process make sense to me based on my leadership experience, but Julia Siwert had authentic testimonials supporting the effectiveness of her process to increase on-line course sales. The learning need that Siwert’s process uncovered was collecting and incorporating feedback from interested others into the design and content of an on-line course. The current version of the on-line course had been created based on what I thought others needed to know. But to generate sales, I learned an on-line course needs to meet the current learning needs of others. Siwert’s process also specified targeted primary research in support of the challenge to initiate sales from an on-line course. The primary research is to identify 10 people who would be interested in the on-line course and then set up Zoom meetings to get real-time feedback on the course.

Secondary research can be used to uncover options to address a learning need in addition to identifying learning needs with respect to a specific problem, opportunity, improvement or result. There are many learning options within organizations such as the following: on-the-job learning from a more experienced colleague, eLearning from the Learning Management System, apprenticeships for a highly sought-after skill or trade, cross-training, coaching, and mentoring. There are also learning options outside of organizations you can do on your own time such as the following: independent study, volunteer work, lectures at universities, free on-line courses like through Coursera ( or MIT OpenCourseWare (, or paid on-line courses from many resources like LinkedIN ( or LearnDesk ( Once you use secondary research to identify some options to address your learning need, you can use primary research to test that the learning option will best meet your learning need. For example, you can look for testimonial videos to understand more about the options or network to find others to talk to about their experience with the options you are considering.

Act of Learning to Avoid Stunted Growth

Stunted growth happens when you embark on learning experiences for others but not for yourself. If a professional is learning because it is required or recommended but not something sought, then the learner won’t apply what they learn at work in order to grow their skills and knowledge. The leadership skill of learning takes developing and using ways to apply lessons learned back on the job.

Once you engage in your selected learning option, you want to develop tools or techniques to put the helpful things you learned into practice. Tools and techniques can include things like checklists and guides for specific activities or post-it note reminders in your office. I like to put the notes I take from my learning experience into a mindmap like the Mind Manager application. A mindmap helps me categorize my notes and draw insights for actions and changes I would like to make. A mindmap can also help to organize content for tools and techniques to implement lessons learned in specific activities. I captured input from an on-line course from different people representing target learners in a mindmap and was able to outline a new structure for five new courses based on the input.

The act of learning often points you to your next challenge. For example, for the goal of generating sales from on-line courses, secondary research pointed to the need to test that course content meets current learning needs of the targeted audience. The input collected from targeted learners led to the design of five new related courses. The next challenge is targeted marketing of these new courses through social media channels like Instagram and through ads tied to searches on Google and You-Tube. The learning process can be repeated for the next challenge.


Professionals need to learn like a leader in order to navigate career pitfalls and find fulfillment. One potential career pitfall is misplaced motivation like learning what the organization values which may or may not bring you career fulfillment. Leaders base their learning needs on a purpose statement that reflects their interests and ambitions. A second potential career pitfall is unfocused learning like squandering time on learning as many different things as you can as a way to discover where your fulfillment lies. Leaders use secondary and primary research to identify learning needs specific to their purpose statement and options for addressing those learning needs. Leaders save time and money by doing secondary research first and primary research second on identifying and addressing learning needs. A third and final potential career pitfall is stunted growth from dropping the ball when it comes to applying what was learned to address learning needs. When you don’t apply what you learned to address learning needs, the next learning challenge does not present itself and growth stops. Leaders draw insights from what was learned and use tools to apply what was learned which uncovers the next learning challenge. Learn like a leader so you can find career fulfillment and avoid the career pitfalls of misplaced motivation, unfocused learning, and stunted growth.