About Leadership Learning

A New Column from getAbstract CEO Thomas Bergen

Thomas BergenLuzern (CH), November 2023 - As an entrepreneur, CEO, husband, and father, I learn much daily while encountering many points of view. I learn because I'm curious - and, well, I learn because I can't stand still for long. If I felt comfortable idling, getAbstract wouldn't exist (or wouldn't exist anymore); my wife would be long gone; and my children would have found other caregivers. I'm lucky that I'm a naturally curious person and that other people prefer the presence of guys like me to that of idlers, even in Switzerland.

I am not alone. All people are curious and eager to learn. However, due to enormous differences in living conditions and opportunities, the possibility of discovery has limits. Countless initiatives in the world of work today propagating "lifelong learning" indicate that in the past, companies did not provide the right environment to enable employees to grow beyond dull, predefined processes. "Learning? Yeah, fine, but please do it after work!"

When it comes to "lifelong learning", we have an enormous amount of catching up to do on the personal, organizational, and societal levels. We discuss "tools" and "skills," learning concepts, and platforms. Sometimes we even talk about learning mindsets, but because they can't be sold and are often vaguely defined, they enjoy a lower priority in business discussions.

Leaders ranting about the "joy of discovery" and "innovation" still operate in the same ways they were taught in university - forty years ago - simply because they feel more comfortable with it and have no idea of their position as role models.

Actual learning gets lost in the buzzword bingo of a rapidly growing digital market, and many organizational promotions of learning initiatives ring strangely hollow. As a result, lots of them are wasted time, wasted ideas, sleepy discoveries, and disillusioned HR departments.

I want to change this because, from my perspective, without "skin in the game", all efforts to stay on track remain anemic growth-wise. So, I recently took a few hours to step back and think about how I could help bring learning to life in organizations, especially for other leaders. I want to help foster better use of the tremendous opportunities that lie dormant in knowledge creation and application. The result is some short (and longer) articles that provide - often very personal - insight into the essential elements of learning leadership.

I'm convinced that they are the levers that can first "turn on" entire companies regarding innovation capability. Leaders who not only develop an almost obsessive hunger for learning but also act on it and sufficiently reflect on their achievements are role models and examples for the entire workforce.

Over the coming months, I'll ask uncomfortable questions about leadership competencies, tell stories about my findings, and share the theoretical basis for understanding them in the form of book summaries on each topic. My posts in the getAbstract Journal will alleviate some fears about learning and invite imitation and discussion.

I want to start with a ten-part series on a rare commodity that every leader should be more concerned about in these times of hybrid collaboration, talent shortages and increasing volatility: trust.

1. Trust: Why?

If you can't rely on anything, you get nothing done. Trust is the basis of all successful collaboration, at the desk, in high-stakes sales talks, and in everyday interaction. Always and everywhere, a test of trust takes place before we tackle something together with others, before a product or service is purchased, or before one hires a new employee.

Stephen M. Covey, the guru on trust for decades, calls it the new hard currency in working life. After all, if you can't rely on anything, you get nothing done. In times of hybrid work, this is true more than ever.

Most people consider competencies in trust to be innate or learned early on. For example, children learn to distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar in their very first weeks and months because, without this instinct, small and helpless, they would hardly survive their childhood years. Nevertheless, it is true: You can learn to trust at any age. It's not easy for everyone, but it's worth it - and it makes life easier, bit by bit.

Leaders, in particular, must have a sense of it because their ability to trust determines the weal and woe of their success. People can know everything on their own, and they can’t manage everything on their own. Those who pretend they can do not have "healthy self-confidence" but a psychological problem. Moreover, to delegate work (I'll deal with this separately in a couple of days), a central task of good leadership in a specialized economy, one must receive and communicate the information necessary for decisions and consider the next steps. Where trust does not exist, leaders suffer from filter bubbles.

To a certain extent, dictators who surround themselves more and more with advisors who only tell them what they want to hear share the same fate. First, they find themselves in a hand-crafted echo chamber and thus lose contact with reality. Second, they lose the capability to make informed decisions. In the end, they lose everything - always.

Leaders who are untrustworthy and unable to trust others cannot receive all necessary information and therefore have no basis for properly weighing conditions. In short, such a person is not suitable for leadership tasks.

I identify three rules:

  • Trust is the foundation of successful human interactions.
  • Trust in yourself and others makes you and your environment more resilient.
  • A culture of trust starts with the leader as a role model.