Don't Be a Knower. Be a Learner.

In the beginners there are infinite possibilities. In the experts there are few. philosopher, Shunryu Suzuki Quote

I have been developing leaders for nearly 20 years, but it never ceases to amaze me when someone comes to my training class with low expectations of learning anything.  Sadly, this happens more than you may think!  People who show up with their walls up.  Who arrive in a classroom choosing to waste their precious time.  I can FEEL them in the room…like a speedbump I have to go over as I look for the people who are ready to go.  I affectionately call these people “The Knowers.”

“Knowers” typically fall into one of four groups, each with their own emotional drivers…

They Are Prisoners – These Knowers have been “volun-told” to come to this class, often by a manager who views it as a reward & recognition opportunity.  They believe they don’t need to be there or don’t want to be there.  THEIR EMOTIONS:  Resentful, angry, frustrated

They Are Vacationers – These learners KNOW they are happy to not be at work!  Their main goal is relaxation.  The free food, drinks, and hotel housekeeping only serve to reinforce that this is time off.  They often treat the learning as a distraction from their vacation.  If things aren’t fun enough or moving fast enough they become clock watchers and encourage small talk vs practice.  THEIR EMOTIONS:  Annoyed, impatient, burned-out

They Are Observers – They believe what we are talking about is very, very important…for other people in the room to learn.  I often see this with the CEOs, HR Leaders, and “experts”.  They observe us learning in hopes that we will come to understand what they have obviously mastered.  EMOTIONS:  Bored, self-assured, aloof

They Are Cynics – These are the worst and most common Knowers.  They know that <Insert Best Practice Here> won’t work for them in their unicorn of a situation because of <Insert XYZ Reason>.  Their routine skepticism and been-there attitude oozes from them and contaminates us all.  An eager learner will hesitate to contribute, a snippy comment gets a hint of sad laughter, and the energy plummets.  I don’t take this personally – this is likely how they behave at work as well -- but I intervene when it blocks learning.  It is smart to take what you hear and run it through the filter of your own experience to determine if it makes sense -- but everyone recognizes the difference between a challenging cynic and a thoughtful learner.  What is sad is that many people who start my class as a Knowing Cynic shift into a Thoughtful Learner by the end – wasting half of their own learning experience and diminishing the experience of people around them.  EMOTIONS:  Skeptical, fearful, righteous

None of the "Knower" emotions promote learning -- research show that you are most likely to learn when you feel safe, curious, and optimistic.  If you come in wanting to be a Learner, you will probably learn something. But if you come in as a Knower, your Ah-Ha moment could fly right past you.  For example...

Last year, I was leading a session where a woman in her late 40’s declared, with pride, that she hates all of the new technology she is expected to learn and use.  “I don’t get all of these apps and chat rooms and tweets.  It is just annoying and overwhelming!”  I saw a younger man at her table start to slowly shake his head.  So I asked him, “What do you think about what she just said.”  And he looked right her and replied, “What I just heard is that you have no intent to be relevant in 10 years.”  Her eyes…and everyone else’s…bulged right out of our heads. 

At first I thought she was going to get mad, but she instead she sighed and said, “You are probably right.  It is more likely that I am going away than apps are going away.”  Deciding she wanted to become a Learner made a huge difference for her.  The young man helped her create a Twitter account and mentored her on sending her first tweet later that week.  It was a great reminder that if you stop being a Learner, and act like a Knower, you put an expiration date on your forehead. 

Being the fastest learner in the room will be the hallmark of successful leaders in the 21st Century.  

Things are changing too fast to know it all.  While “expertise” used to be a highly valued leadership trait, today it is unrealistic to suggest you possess mastery.  Admitting you don’t know, knowing the people who do know, and being willing to hand the leadership baton over to whomever knows the most in the moment are highly valued leadership traits in 2017.  

I want to learn every day.  And I want to enable the learning of others every day.  This is my calling in life!  But even I get into a bad place from time to time and don’t allow my ears to be open enough, or my mouth to be closed enough, or my brain to be turned on enough.  I hope anyone who choses to comes to our classes comes ready to be a learner.  Because we can’t wait to learn from you.