The Virtuous Cycle of Learning

Just as intellect or athleticism are gifts, so too is natural curiosity.  And as with all gifts, they are advanced if/when we apply self-discipline.  Or they can be left undeveloped by ignorance or complacence.

Smart people and good athletes become great ones through arduous training and great habits.

Learning is no different.  The best organizational leaders are authentic learners and must continually adjust to their mistakes by recognizing and embracing what they don’t know.  Those who decide they should be acclaimed as experts and leaders have actually arrived at the start of their decline.

Coming out of school, I believed brains were the secret to success.  Then I noticed that those who strove to be the “smartest person in the room” never were.

To grow and lead organizations we must have a certain level of intelligence.  It also helps to have EQ, as described in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence”.  To these, I add LQ, coining a term for learning ambition I wrote about in this blog two years ago.  (If interested, enter the term Learning Quotient in the search tab on our website.)  The most successful organizational and business leaders I’ve studied show a combination of all three.

To keep learning in a virtuous cycle, consider these basic guidelines:

  1. Start with Why. During my first year in advertising, our agency’s chairman noticed I asked a ton of questions and during one session he turned to me and said, “you get lost in a grocery store, don’t you?”  I had never thought of it that way, but I did enjoy figuring out why displays are positioned a certain way, which products stand out and to this day, I’m forever trying to figure out the why of pricing.  The top marketing officer at Raising Cane’s told me yesterday she’d like to learn more from me about the early days of marketing that brand and I told her “only if you’ll teach me why things are so different today”.  A good deal for us both!
  2. Surround Yourself with Learners. One reason I was expelled from corporate America is that I bristle at intellectual snobbery.  Organizational debates often rely on positions of authority and political skills.  For me, any argument that is not research based is a waste of time and money.  Once I could control my own destiny, I sought people secure in their own knowledge who also loved to learn more from others.  Unlike corporate climbers, learners are looking for progress of the whole, not individual acclaim.  More than half the folks no longer at our companies left because gaining personal authority was more important to them than organizational progress.
  3. Never, never, never stop learning. Last week, I worked for a Vistage Chairman in Lancaster/York Pennsylvania who is 88 years old.  He speaks a bit softly and moves slowly but he runs a great CEO group (in fact, he runs two of them).  He told me “why quit when I’m still learning?”  Rick Oppenheimer (the Chair) is an inspiration to me no less than my father who studied for a year to become certified abdominal surgeon at 64 and Michaelangelo who at 78 said, “Ancora Imparo” which literally translates as “I am still learning”.

Every organization faces intractable issues.  If your team is aggressively seeking solutions through information and shared logic, you are engaged in the virtuous cycle of learning.  Trust is present, and progress is therefore inevitable even if it is hard to see at times.

If you and or your cohorts instead seem more skilled at debate, recognition of positional authority and political skill, you are caught in a vicious cycle.

It won’t change until someone breaks it.


Tim McCarthy




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