It is a new year and I wonder if you want to grow this year? By “grow” I mean learn new things or do old things better.

Photo by Patricia Maxwell Wood

Successful people and leaders resist the inertia to just keep doing the same thing. They seek opportunities to learn even when it requires them to become a novice again and embrace the failure that may accompany new learning. In a moment I will share four attributes researchers have connected to this group of successful learners.

Patti Wood, Bird Photographer. My wife, Patti, is a Registered Dietician and had a wonderful career specializing in clinical treatment. A few years ago, she retired, mostly because of an upper back issue. But this didn’t stop her from learning. When she was in high school she worked in her aunt’s photography studio, where she learned a great deal about photography. After Patti retired she merged her love of photography with her love of wildlife and has become an accomplished bird photographer. Note the attached photo of a Short-eared Owl in flight at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island near Newburyport, Massachusetts. Patti made quite a change in her life. No doubt in my mind, she is what I call a “learning leader.”

Satya Nadella’s Growth Observation. I was intrigued to read a synopsis of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s book Hit Refresh, which explores the new growth culture he is creating at Microsoft. In the book and an article in Fast Company Nadella points to growth lessons he took away from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which I wrote about in one of my “Grit” blogs last year.

Dweck describes two types of people: Those with fixed-mindsets, who prefer to stick with tasks or activities that utilize skills he or she has already mastered rather than risk failure trying something new; and those with growth-mindsets, who have missions to keep learning while sometimes failing along the way.

Nadella is trying to create a “refreshed” culture at Microsoft – one that encourages individuals to develop growth-mindsets, people who are inspired to develop new products, services, and business systems without fear of organizational retribution for failures. And Nadella seems to be succeeding.

Four Attributes of Learning Leaders with Growth-Mindsets. In an unrelated Harvard Business Review article Learning to Learn by Erika Anderson, I was intrigued to read about four attributes or capabilities Anderson and her colleagues identified in successful learning leaders.

In brief, here are the four attributes and Anderson’s suggestions for how we can develop these attributes further.

Aspiration. This is your energy level of whether you want to develop a new skill or not. At your core you have ambition and motivation and as a learning leader you know how to raise your aspiration regardless of the barriers.

Like everyone learning leaders have doubts about changing at the beginning. They may focus on the negatives that reinforce not learning. (It will take too long. This is not a permanent change so why invest the time. Someone else can learn this rather than me.) However, learning leaders with grow-mindsets have learned to ask this question, “What benefits can come from this learning?” Anderson writes that in her experience coaching executives, just asking and answering this question naturally increases one’s aspiration.

Self-Awareness. While many learning leaders have worked on building their emotional intelligence and learning how others perceive them, only learning leaders understand how to openly and deeply evaluate their own skills. (I thought it was interesting that Anderson cited a study of college professors in which 94% rated themselves as above average teachers. Sort of like in Lake Wobegon, “where all the children are above average.”)

In the minds of leaders who have not mastered self-awareness, their “self-talk” when they receive critical skill feedback is comprised mostly of defensive and self-deceptive language. (What, my boss thinks my team is under-developed? She’s wrong. She does not understand my people like I do. They admire and appreciate me.)

Anderson writes that when leaders learn to listen to our “self-talk” carefully and recognize when we are defensive and self-deceptive, we can really begin to learn and improve. We can ask, “Could this feedback be accurate? How can I verify it and if accurate improve my skills?”

Photo by Gabby Orcutt

Curiosity. In children curiosity, or the urge to learn and master, is often considered a “drive,” like hunger and thirst. Learning leaders maintain this drive throughout their lifetime and when faced with a learning opportunity start by asking “self-talk” curiosity questions. After asking the questions they often follow-up with actions so they can really learn the answers.

For example, when faced with a tedious challenge that could start out boring, pay attention to your “self-talk.” A curious learning leader might ask questions like “Yes, this may be boring at first, but I wonder why others find it interesting?” Or, “Yes, this will be tedious, but I wonder if I can find a way to help the process be more efficient as I learn?”

Vulnerability. Learning leaders have learned to rest their egos and can go back to square one and not be perfect. Anderson calls this the “beginner state”. Learning leaders ignore such “self-talk” phrases as, “I hate this. I’m such an idiot. I’ll never get this right. This is so frustrating.” They instead think, “I’m going to be bad at this to start with because I’ve never done this before. And I know I can learn to do it well over time.”

Anderson reminds us of a study by Wood and Bandura done in the 1980s that concluded, “When people are encouraged to expect mistakes and learn from them early in the process of acquiring new skills, the result is heightened interest, persistence, and better performance.”

I hope this article has provided you a little fertilizer for helping you develop your growth mindset for the learning leader within – may you live long and prosper.