The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. Alvin Toffler
One of the characteristics that I believe set strong leaders apart from the mediocre is their willingness not only to learn, but to recognize when past learning has become obsolete. This is a special challenge for leaders who also need to express and embody confidence and security with themselves. The ability to have faith in one’s own ideas while at the same time being open to the notion that they may be based on faulty knowledge is a high expectation for leaders, but one that should be legitimate
This is why I argue that leaders need to be educated as well as trained. In my role as college professor, I see students in the MBA program struggle with this all the time. Many of them came back to school in order to learn HOW to do the things that will make them more successful in the business world. The problem is, learning HOW is a function of training, not education. Education is about learning WHY, which means there are times where the application of a bit of knowledge or concept in isolation is difficult to discern.
This is not a small distinction. To learn how to do something, to be trained, requires a person to learn the steps that have been thought through by others and to use those steps in his or her specific situation. It is important to be trained…I want my dentist, my doctor and my accountant to have all been trained in following the procedures that they may apply to me in some way. But when procedures have to be changed, our training becomes obsolete and we have to be retrained.
Education, on the other hand, is learning that allows a person to develop their own thoughts. It’s understanding enough of the foundation and the big picture to be able to create solutions when the need arises. Education is summative…what you have now is expanded and enlarged with what you add today and in the future. It doesn’t become obsolete…it becomes broader and deeper. I hope my doctor has an education as well as training because my condition may be different than what my doctor has ever trained for. He may need to use his broader knowledge to understand how to approach my situation. If he understands not only what works, but why it works, he can be flexible enough to create a plan to address whatever variations I present for him.
The same is true for leaders. Knowing HOW is important, but knowing WHY gives us the knowledge we need to adapt to changing needs and situations. Learning how to have your own thoughts rather than simply learning the procedures of others, can be the difference between being a leader and being a person who knows how to do a limited number of things well.