Learning Matters: Learning while Leading
Recently, I asked the new leader of the Rochester Student Association for his perspective on leadership. I was struck by the maturity of this young man’s answer: “I’m discovering it’s extremely helpful to let people know I don’t know.” Then he told me about the researcher he’s working with at Mayo Clinic right now. “He’s a genius but when things happen in the lab that we don’t expect, he asks me what I think might be going on. He’s one of my models for what it means to lead—just keep on learning.”
In the current context, such an attitude is unavoidable for leaders. Let’s face it, none of us have ever led through a global pandemic, solved for systemic racism nor united political schisms in our society. If we expect to have a positive influence as we move through this season, we must learn in order to lead.
On campus, faculty are leaders – in their classrooms and ultimately, through their potential for influence on the broader culture over time. In a Zoom room last week, I heard a professor thinking through the complexities of student engagement in the virtual environment of fall 2020. “I don’t know what to do,” she lamented, “and they’re counting on me to guide them.” Perhaps the single most important action leaders like her can take right now is to reveal that reality – “I don’t know, but I’m determined to figure it out.”
Brene´ Brown talks regularly about vulnerability as a core attribute of those with exceptional influence. In her 2018 book Dare to Lead, Brown says, “Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.”
Of course, she wrote those words before the pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd and before the current divisive election – but they ring true as I look around my campus and community and see leaders who are making a difference in these difficult days. It is certainly time for leaders who are open to learning to step up.
That kind of leadership begins with asking questions and importantly, with listening to the answers, respecting all who respond and aiming to adapt based on what is discovered. In an October discussion with students I asked a general “how’s it going” question and heard about how August anxiety fueled by ambiguity is dissipating into October exhaustion from being productive while living with fear about the future. As I faced new decisions that would impact students in the week that followed that interaction, I was better prepared because I had listened carefully to their experience. Leaders who are learning seek to discern what’s the next question I need to ask? and of whom do I need to ask it?.
No one has The Answer in these perplexing circumstances. And, no one yet knows all that will be learned, individually and collectively, from our shared strife in 2020. But if you are to lead – among your family members or living companions, in your COVID-pod, during post-election processing, in UMR classrooms or in any of your spheres of influence – displaying your commitment to learning…matters.