An endless journey of continuous learning: a critical lesson for leaders

An endless journey of continuous learning: a critical lesson for leaders

One of the most underlined and passed-along quotations from leaders that I know of comes from Mahatma Gandhi: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Unfortunately, there is too much evidence of leaders all around the world who failed to live by this maxim; hence, the downfall and decline of their organisations.

One very obvious case is Nokia. We all remember the scene during the news conference Nokia held to announce it was being acquired by Microsoft, when the former CEO ended his speech by saying, “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.” It marked the end of a long and once very prosperous journey for Nokia.

The problem with Nokia was that it neglected to apply continuous learning, which resulted in it eventually becoming redundant and irrelevant in its industry. Such neglect means that you don’t have to do anything “wrong” to lose out and fail, as long as your competitors are learning, catching the wave and doing better.

What is the lesson here for leaders? A recent Workforce 2020 study revealed that more than half of the employees interviewed felt their leaders lacked the necessary skills to effectively manage their people. Traditionally, we assume that the boss knows best, that bosses are in their positions because they not only know what to do, but they know the best way to do it.

However, such assumptions are no longer operative because nowadays the marketplace is changing all the time and at a dramatic pace; thus, leaders can’t possibly know everything. What got someone into the position he holds today will no longer take him further to where he intends to go.

Many people view the state of not knowing as a sign of weakness, and that is why a lot of leaders are afraid to admit, let alone express the simple statement, “I don’t know.”

The solution? Leaders must be lifetime learners as leadership is an endless journey of continuous learning.

For a start, leaders need to free themselves from old-fashioned and harmful beliefs that they can’t be effective or respected unless they know everything. They need to accept that it is normal to not know everything when change is happening so fast. Only when they can reconcile themselves to this reality can they start learning.

Other than that, learning can take many different forms and here are a few examples to get you started on continuous learning.

Listen: A good leader doesn’t necessarily need to know everything; he or she simply needs to be able to get input from all sources. And by all sources, I mean from listening to other people regardless of their position, age, background or experience. Learn as much as you can and make informed decisions based on what information you have learned.

Unlearn and Relearn: This is another essential form of learning, because learning doesn’t always have to be about learning something completely new. It could be come in the form of your willingness to let go of some knowledge or belief that you’ve been holding on to for a long time and to relearn it from a new perspective. In fact, we all know that nothing sticks forever, so relearning can be beneficial when you find yourself losing your once finely tuned skills.

Role model: Good leaders need to encourage their people to keep learning as well. Surely, there are many ways leaders can encourage learning, but what is important is that they establish learning as a value, and demonstrate it themselves. When you realise that your people are looking at you as their role model, you will start pushing yourself to learn more until it finally becomes your habit.

That brings us back to the former CEO of Nokia and his belief that his people hadn’t done anything wrong, yet somehow they lost. But it is obvious that somewhere along their journey, they stopped learning, they missed out on the opportunity to change, their thoughts and mindset failed to catch up with times; thus, they were eliminated from the competition.

No company wants to “learn” a lesson in such a hard and expensive way that it involves going out of business. Thus, make sure continuous learning is a leadership skill that’s embedded in your corporate culture — let the journey begin!


Arinya Talerngsri is Group Managing Director at APMGroup, Thailand's leading Organisation and People Development Consultancy. She can be reached by e-mail at or

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