“What have you learned about yourself in the past two years?”
That’s the question I ask applicants to our Advanced Leadership Course, as well as prospective consultants who express a desire to join our team.
That important question underscores a seldom discussed leadership responsibility: the sustained commitment to learn about self.
When I ask most leaders what kinds of learning they participate in, they cite books on business and leadership. They attend industry-specific conferences and events sponsored by professional associations. The people they most often associate with are other business leaders, including their work colleagues.
Though it usually does no harm, meeting people similar to ourselves and living within familiar surroundings offer only minimal opportunities for breakthrough self-learning. Lingering in the status quo restricts access to circumstances that stimulate growth.
As leaders, we need the widest possible viewing lens. We need to seek out situations that stimulate self-reflection, to enter environments that share a common characteristic: difference.
Difference brings challenge
Difference takes us out of our comfort zone and reorders our thinking. It stretches our tolerance and strengthens our confidence. It rebuilds relationships. It stimulates our creativity and sharpens our decision making.
Instead of the usual workshops, vacations and social circles, learning about self means crossing new thresholds, engaging with people we would otherwise not meet, taking calculated risk, embracing benign discomfort.
When I proposed this challenge in a recent coaching session, I was asked to share an example of my own self learning.
I told my client about a walk I took with a friend a few weeks ago that began at the Four Corners in Downtown Rochester and followed a loop that included West Main Street, Chili Avenue and West Avenue. Known as the Bulls’ Head neighborhood—and parts of the 19th Ward—that area has numerous challenges including abandoned homes and vacant lots that invite drug users. It is not a place most people would choose for a casual walk.
Importantly, it is also home to hardworking, honest people in diverse cultural and economic situations.
In the course of that walk, we conversed with three people waiting for a bus at the intersection of West Main and Genesee Streets. We stopped at corner stores and restaurants, and ducked inside a building where, 50 years ago, my mother ran a beauty shop. Now it’s an African goods store run by a jovial Nigerian named Ibrahim.
A few blocks later, we followed the smoky perfume wafting from Unkl Moe’s restaurant and met Moses Smith, the creator of the locally famous barbecue. Known as an enterprising chef, Moe also tells first-rate stories.
Though it took only two hours, that simple walk introduced me to a setting I don’t normally see or experience. And it was precisely its novelty that transported me towards self-reflection—and got me thinking that I should step out of the ordinary more often.
You might be thinking that a walk like this seems to have little to do with my leadership. In truth, my experiences of difference provide a perspective and depth that shows up “by osmosis” in my coaching and teaching. It can work for you too.
Self-learning through exposure to difference
Strike up a conversation with someone with a different job, socio-economic status or religious belief. What do you have in common?
Learn about a particular animal or plant and its ecosystem. What lessons can be gleaned from the natural world?
In a situation where you normally would talk, listen. Where you would usually hold back, speak up. What happens?
Question your tendency to play life too safe. Plan a learning-focused vacation, one that takes you and your family out of your comfort zones.
Approach artists, police officers, immigrants, flight attendants or protesters to sincerely ask why they do what they do (If you haven’t tried this, don’t knock it until you do. Most people are eager to talk about themselves, if another is willing to listen with an open mind).
Commit to self-development
Testing new and different waters is a lifelong challenge. Pushing into unfamiliar territory will keep you learning as much as possible. When you do this, remember that’s it’s not just unusual experiences that open your eyes, ears, mind and heart. It’s also the willingness to reflect on those encounters, asking self focused questions:
“What did I find myself thinking about during that interaction?”
“What did I see that I want to incorporate into my own life and leadership?”
“Was this experience as difficult—or as dangerous—as I thought it would be?”
The results will likely amaze you. As a leader, reflecting on experiences of difference will assist you in shoring up weaknesses, discovering new strengths, reducing unfounded biases, improving your diplomacy, sparking creativity and gaining respect.
Embracing difference invigorates and enlightens. Building a connection with someone different from yourself is the basis of relationship intimacy, international relations, cross-cultural dialogue and respected leadership.
If you are a leader of any kind, you’ve signed on to be a student of your own life. Complement the challenges you give others by challenging yourself to expand your knowledge and experience beyond what is comfortable.
As I’ve said many times, you cannot lead someone to a place you’ve never been.
John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected]