Lifelong learner

December 19, 2021 •

8 min reading

Lifelong learning and leadership development success

Written by
  • Why developing a lifelong learning mindset will support your leadership development goals
  • How to form a leadership development plan

Common traits of great leaders

What do Barack Obama, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have in common? Apart from being wealthy, influential and powerful people, they've all become known for their commitment to continuous learning. For example:

  • While in office as president, Obama would set aside an hour each day for personal reading.
  • Throughout his career, Buffett invested 80% of his time into reading and thinking.
  • Gates makes it a point to read one book each week.

These are all examples of what may be termed a "lifelong learner mindset." Lifelong learners don't believe that they already "know enough to get by." Rather, they are passionate about exploring new topics — and even expanding and deepening their base of knowledge on topics that they already know.

Being a lifelong learner is a conscious decision that each and every person has the ability to make. Time and again, lifelong learners have thrived in challenging and unexpected situations, and have leveraged their outlook on education into tangible results and achievements.

Granted, it takes effort to get started on this lifelong learning "journey." The purpose of the following information is to provide perspective on why developing a lifelong learning mindset is so critical today, and how (and where) to begin. First, let's briefly define what the term "lifelong learning" really means.


What is lifelong learning?

One definition of lifelong learning reads as follows: "The practice of continuing to learn throughout one's entire life, especially outside of or after the completion of formal schooling."

It's important to note that lifelong learning is not only a practice, but also a state of mind. In this, it differs from continuing education, which is simply a formalized type of learning that builds upon a foundation of knowledge in a certain field or subject. Lifelong learning, on the other hand, is a completely voluntary, self-motivated pursuit of knowledge that never stops. It can embrace both the personal and professional spheres of an individual's life (and sometimes encompasses both of them concurrently).

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The importance of lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is certainly important for an individual's employability on the job market. However, it is also a critical component in personal growth and professional development, and is one key element of successful leadership in the corporate world. As self-made billionaire Paul Tudor Jonesonce remarked: "Intellectual capital will always trump financial capital."

Many people — no doubt influenced by the traditional concept of university — tend to view education as a massive "upfront" investment that should pay passive dividends for years to come. The outlook of a lifelong learner presents a stark contrast to this perspective. In the lifelong learner's mind, education should be a continual process that never truly ends.

It's no surprise that many of the most effective leaders today are open to learning in non-traditional ways. They are also willing and able to "unlearn" concepts that have been debunked, and "relearn" things that will help them to be better managers, trainers, strategists and motivators. Simply put, highly effective leaders are coachable. Instead of saying "I know" (two words that often signal the death of learning), they instead say "I wantto know." As a result, they are open to innovative ideas that would have never gained traction otherwise.


The benefits of lifelong learning in leadership development

While it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list of the many benefits inherent in a lifelong learning mindset, here are a few key reasons why cultivating this outlook has a positive impact on the lives and careers of both current and future leaders:

  • Increased functionality ("skilling up").The average person today will change jobs up to 15 times during the course of their career. In addition, the world in general is transitioning to a "digital work economy," which means that workers will absolutely have to acquire new skills in order to remain employable. (For example, active learning will be a more critical skill than memorization.) Those with a lifelong learner mindset will be able to adapt to the changing job market more easily than those who place limits on their own learning potential.

  • Improved life satisfaction.It's important for leaders to pursue passions and interests outside of work. The perils of being a "workaholic" are well-documented. Cultivating a predilection for lifelong learning can motivate leaders to focus some of their time and energy on hobbies and other pleasurable activities, and thus enjoy increased contentment in both their personal and professional lives.

  • Enhanced "transferability."One of the keys to successful learning is learninghowto learn. Leaders that understand which learning styles are most effective for them can transfer those methods and strategies to virtually any topic.
  • Greater empathy.Effective leaders use empathy to forge strong relationships with their team members, understand and acknowledge (and sometimes accept) different perspectives, and motivate employees to give their best. Since lifelong learning often involves deliberately seeking out ideas that differ from our own, it is an important ingredient in the development of empathy and emotional intelligence.


Checklist: How to form a personal leadership development plan

The concepts of lifelong learning and personal leadership development align well with one another. In fact, it's often impossible to pursue one without the other.

If you are looking for ways to grow personally and professionally, here are some elements that you should consider including in your individual plan.

Formalize your personal goals, gaps and skills development priorities

Taking a moment to personally reflect on your vision, goals and gaps will jumpstart your leadership development plan development with focus and clarity.

Start by formalizing these questions:

  • What major gaps have hindered my performance as a leader? 
    E.g: With new challenges arising from remote working, it has become challenging to foster a positive atmosphere within my team.
  • What is my personal leadership development vision for the next year?
    E.g: over the next few months, I want to focus on developing my communication skills with my team by being able to clearly articulate our goals while being able to receive feedback in a constructive way.
  • Why do I want to expand and deepen my level of knowledge?
    E.g: I want to ensure I can advocate for my team in times of needs while being able to promote a motivating spirit.
  • What are my ultimate career objectives (both short-term and long-term).

Outline the relationships you want to develop and connect

Whether it's a skilled colleague from whom you could learn, or a vendor with in-depth, specialized knowledge of the product that he or she supplies, look for people who could benefit from a working relationship with you, and who could benefit you in return.

Identifying leaders you look up to and reflecting on key traits you believe make them great at what they do can be a powerful way of developing your own leadership development goals. Then, reach out to them to initiate a conversation.

Proactively request feedback

Whether through direct feedback within your organization or a more personal approach through a personality assessment, the goal is to identify your strengths and weaknesses and outline what you should focus your learnings objectives on.

E.g: I learned that although I am excellent at communicating shifts in operational priorities, I need to do a better job at providing a clear context and articulating clear objectives.

Define a timeline

Your development plan needs to be full of the above mentioned action items that come with their own deadlines. From taking a week to reflect on your own vision to getting feedback and completing a self-assessment, committing to a deadline will go a long way to act on your goals.


How to activate your leadership development goals?

There are many types of learning available to self-motivated individuals today. Formalized classroom education is one of them but there is a plethora of options available for lifelong learners. Whether you have the opportunity to get additional formal training through your company or take a more personal approach on your free time, these are the major options to consider:

  • Formal training (either in-person or virtually) is a great way to deepen your business knowledge with a group of like-minded learners in a classroom or online setting. Organizations often offer formal training opportunities to their leaders and taking the time to build a business case to get additional training is a great way to approach your manager or HR department.
  • 360 degree feedback helps managers and leaders deepen their understanding on their own performance from their peers, subordinates and superiors. 360-feedback can be facilitated through your HR department or through coaching
  • Developmental job assignments can be a powerful additional to formal training. Through relevant job rotations, leaders can focus on honing a newly acquired skills from formal training and have the opportunity to concretely apply what they have learnt “on the job”.
  • Coaching and mentoring: A one-on-one approach with a trained, certified coach or a mentor identified within an organization can help leaders take their leadership skills to the next level. Not only will coaching and mentoring be of tremendous help to develop personal goals, they are also powerful ways of aligning developmental goals with an organizations’ business objectives.
  • Self-directed learning: This type of learning may involve a structured curriculum or sequence of tutorials — however, students are able to learn at their own pace, and on their own time. YouTube workshops are one example of self-directed learning.


When is continuing education worth it?

Continuing education can be considered a formal extension of lifelong learning. Whether continuing education is "worth it" depends of course on the amount of the investment and the field of study. But more and more, effective continuing education needs to include so-called "soft skills" that are necessary for emotionally intelligent leaders, such as:

  • Motivation
  • Self-awareness and management
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Social skills

Recent research showed that 97% of employers view soft skills as important ormoreimportant than hard skills — and of the new employees that quit or are terminated within 18 months of landing their job, 89% fail because of a lack of soft skills.

Taking all this into consideration, you should carefully consider the following points when deciding whether to invest in continuing education:

  • Will your field of study realistically yield a high enough (financial) return for you?
  • What is the reputation and track record of the educational institution under consideration?
  • Will the curriculum incorporate key leadership development skills and opportunities to practice them?
  • Will the continuing education help you to be more effective at your current job, and/or transfer your skill set to a new career?
  • Will it expand your professional network?

In conclusion, lifelong learning is no longer a luxury in the modern workplace — it's a necessity. If you cultivate the right attitude towards ongoing learning and create a workable personal development plan, then you'll be able to reap the fruits of increased knowledge, experience, and confidence from your efforts — and become a better leader in the process.

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Consultant - EHL Education Consulting

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