How Leaders Learn: A Book Review by Bob Morris

How Leaders Learn: Master the Habits of the World’s Most Successful People
David Novak with Lari Bishop
Harvard Business Review Press (June 2024)

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Eppie Lederer (aka Ann Landsers)

Throughout all the years in schools, college, and then graduate study in several universities, my best teachers were — without exception — the best students I ever encountered. I was again reminded of that as I began to read David Novak’s book, written with the assistance of Lari Bishop.

Whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. However different they may be in most other respects, all hibh-impact leaders — without exception — are lifelong students and many (if not most) are eager to share with others what they have learned. Moreover, the most valuable “lessons” tend to be derived from [begin italics] failure [end italics] rather than from success.

Here is how Novak carefully organizes his material.

Part One (Chapters 1-7): How to LEARN FROM your upbringing, new environments, people who know what you don’t, your “truth-tellers”, crises, winning, and from failure.

Part Two (Chapters 8-16): How to LEARN TO listen, ask better questions, make — and check — your own judgments, see the world the way it really is, develop pattern thing [i.e. whole is greater than its parts], reflect, be humble — and confident,  celebrate others’ ideas, and fom trust in positive intention.

Part Three (Chapters 17-27): How to LEARN BY pursuing joy, being yourself — your best self, seeking new challenges, preparing, completing the difficult tasks, doing what is right, tackling problems, simplifying, teaching, making everyone count, and from recognizing on purpose.

Novak correlates the insights, achievements, and values of dozens of “the world’s most successful people” with real-world challenges and, yes, opportunities. I am pleased that he shares his own experiences (for better or worse) whenever appropriate throughout his lively narrative.

In addition to Novak, the other leaders you will learn from include (in alpha order)  Tom Brady (former NFL quarterback), Warren Buffett (CEO, Berkshire Hathaway), Carol Dweck (psychologist and author), Temple Grandin (autism activist and author), Lauren Hobart (CEO, Dick’s Sporting Goods), Oscar Munoz (CEO, United Airlines), Jim Nance (Emmy  Award-winning sports announcer), Jack Nicklaus (legendary golfer) Indra Nooyi (former CEO, Pepsico), Arnold Palmer (legendary golfer), Ginni Rometty (former CEO, IBM), Oprah Winfrey (CEO, OWN), and John Wooden (legendary basketball coach).

Novak makes brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices, such as the insertion of key points in bold face. These are among the ones that caught my eye:

o “An active learner is somebody who seeks out ideas and insights and then pairs them with actions and execution. They learn with purpose. The result is greater possibilities — for them and the people around them.”

o “When we learn by doing, we’re discovering the insights that come from action.”

o “First identify and acknowledge your [knowledge] gaps.  Then, find the right experts and ask them as many questions as possible.”

o “Active learners just don’t wait for the truth-tellers to show up, though. We seek them out. We embrace them. We keep them closer rather than shut them out. And we ask them for the truth.”

o “The more you tell the truth, the more you’ll hear the truth.”

o “To learn from failures, we must be willing to fail in the first place…That’s the essence of learning from failure: you can’t change the past, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. But you can change how you move forward from there.”

o “You cannot learn if you cannot listen…Listening produces clearer thinking  and better ideas and greater motivation for action, and that dramatically expands what we can achieve.”

o “Active learners know that good preparation helps us get the most learning out of any experience. We learn throughout the process of preparing, and we learn more when we’re prepared.” In Art of War, Sun Tzu asserts that “every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”

o “I ask the simplest question possible to get to the most important and insightful answer…It’s hard to ask a simple question if you haven’t brought the issue to its simplest form.” Albert Einstein once suggested, “Make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler.”

o “Your capacity to teach is only as great as your capacity to learn.”

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mind can do full justice to quality of the information, insights, and counsel that David Novak provides but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of him and of his work. That said, the value of the material will ultimately be determined by how carefully you absorb and digest it, and then by how effectively you apply what is relevant to the given opportunities for high-impact leadership.

* * *

Here are two suggestions while you are reading How Leaders Learn: First, highlight key passages Also,  perhaps in a lined notebook kept near-at- hand, record your comments, questions, action steps (preferably with deadlines), page references, and lessons you have learned as well as your responses to key points posed within the narrative. Also record your responses to relevant issues or key npoints in bold face. Pay special attention to end-of-chapter questions that lock in on your own situation.

These two simple tactics — highlighting and documenting — will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent reviews of key material later.

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