Great Leaders are Quick Learners

By Erin Wilson Burns | December 10, 2018

Why are effective leaders often quick learners? 

In recent articles, I have discussed the seven personality traits that differentiate executive leaders from leaders at other levels and shared insights on the first four: Objectivity in the WorkplaceHaving a Positive Outlook, Being EngagedBeing Innovative, and Team Building.  This article focuses on the sixth trait, being a quick learner.  

Why does being a quick learner matter?

To leaders and HR professionals concerned with identifying executive potential, the only surprise to “quick learner” being on the list is most likely the fact that it didn’t show up first.  Learning agility is a bonafide buzzword.  Despite academics rightly pointing out the looseness of the term and lack of conclusive results, the adoption of learning agility has not slowed and has become almost a surrogate for potential by practitioners desperate for something more robust than a manager’s gut instinct.  

At the executive level, quick learners have two characteristics in common.  First, they are quick thinkers, quick to see problems and issues and quick to imagine potential solutions.  Second, they are perceptive, seeing nuances and quickly picking up informal norms within the organization important to success.  

The most difficult problems and issues at the top levels of management do not have easy answers and the decisions required to handle them often have complex future consequences, which are harder to predict.  Due to the volume and speed of inputs that must be processed and understood to make good decisions, speed matters.  Quick learners have built more complex mental models, recognize obscure factors in the decision-making space, and make the connections between immediate and distant effects. They can switch from one set of considerations or audiences to another quickly and effectively.  Perhaps even more important, they are perceptive about their organizations and interpersonal relationships.  

Quick learners tend to pay more attention to nuance, think more systemically, and learn and apply experiences to future possibilities. As a result, they are more nimble and effective in adapting, recognizing and anticipating problems early, solving problems responsively and holistically, and navigating organizational “turbulence.” 

What happens if a leader is not a quick learner?

Leaders who are not as quick are slower to pick up on the nuances of a work environment or to identify the significance of a new development.  They may not be as sensitive to the political aspects of their work environment. They may be somewhat slower to learn from experience and anticipate future effects of decisions.

Typically, the speed at which leaders process information tends to decline with age.  Effective leaders compensate for this by building rich mental models beginning early in their careers, which they can retrieve and continue to build on as they mature.  For quick learners, those mental models are generally deeper, broader, and richer than other leaders.  Leaders who have not built as rich mental models may struggle to identify plausible paths forward and have fewer lessons learned from their own and others’ experiences to apply to evaluate those scenarios.  This is especially important for top level leadership roles because effective decision making at those levels depends more on depth and breadth. As a result they are less likely to be seen as someone with sound judgement.  

Can a leader be too much of a quick thinker?

If a leader has too much confidence in her/his ability to immediately and accurately understand the decision space, she or he may take action before fully thinking through all the nuances in a complex decision.  This over-confidence can lead to bad decisions.  

Quick learners can also struggle in relations with peers and direct reports who are not quick thinkers. Often, leaders who are quick thinkers tend to be impatient with direct reports, peers, and sometimes even external stakeholders and bosses, who cannot see the connections and implications as quickly and fully as they can.

In sum, leaders who can effectively balance quick learning with disciplined thought are able to create rich mental models that facilitate strong decision-making in complex, ambiguous, and volatile situations.  

I invite you to learn about the impactful ways RBL helps our clients foster and develop executive leadership skills. Click here to learn more.  

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 25 years of experience in leadership and strategic HR consulting.

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