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Vail Valley Voices: To lead, you must learn

John Horan-Kates
Vail, CO, Colorado

At the Vail Leadership Institute, we define learning as an orientation toward acquiring knowledge and gaining wisdom. We say orientation, because it’s more about an attitude of growing and less about the rigors of institutional education. And we believe learning is tied more to questions than answers.

My story about learning goes back to Detroit, where I was never a very good student. I was too busy working. First in high school, then in college I held numerous jobs to pay my way. I graduated with a 2.6 grade point average from Wayne State University and was glad to just get through.

My degree was in marketing but I don’t remember that much, primarily because I wasn’t paying that much attention. I learned a lot about taking care of myself, and I often say I got a “throw-away degree.”



It wasn’t until many years later when I began reading in earnest and taking periodic personal development seminars and workshops that learning seemed interesting and relevant. At this point, it wasn’t something I had to do. I siimply wanted to learn and grow.

At one of these workshops, I made a commitment to take one of these programs every year for the rest of my life. And I’ve stuck with that approach for about 30 years.



I call it my “annual look” because I go away and take a look at what I’ve been up to and where I want to go. It’s both a cleansing and a vision-casting experience.

And it became enjoyable, a passion actually. I have become a life-long learner and it has made all the difference.

Years ago Frederic Hudson, a sage executive coach, told me, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” By growing he meant learning, expanding your perspective, trying something new.



With technology, it has become easier to both stay connected and to uncover knowledge. This makes learning more readily available.

But learning what? All of our wisdom literature asks that we build our learning on doing what is good and right and helpful. Everything we need to know about behavior, ethics and every other key leadership issue is contained somewhere in those scriptures.

So how does one turn learning into wisdom? Simply stated, it most often comes with experience and maturity. Learning the lessons of life can be difficult, particularly in our early years. But over time a more patient, more spiritual approach seems to bring us answers more readily. Understanding can often be gained in interaction with others, particularly in small groups, where dialogue allows the lessons we’ve all learned to come out in a supportive, loving fashion. Wisdom is earned, not acquired!

Some leaders, however, view knowledge as all-powerful. Market knowledge; technological know-how; intellectual capital.

The reality is that knowledge is good, but it’s not the primary thing that makes the world go ’round. Effective leaders know that it’s more about people and how we relate to one another.

Too often, learning is thought of as something only done in school. But the process of continuous maturation that occurs all throughout life is best fueled by an attitude of “not knowing,” of longing to understand and the joy of freely asking the “why” questions. The title of Peter Vaill’s thoughtful book, “Learning as a Way of Being,” expresses what we all might strive for.

Learning is required in leading because of our rapidly changing and evolving world.

To stay on top of things, you’ve got to stay connected – a spirit of inquiry that has you exploring new horizons or, possibly, being a mentor to a younger person. The concept is to just keep learning!

This column has been written in connection with Exploring Potential, a character-development program offered in Eagle County high schools. John Horan-Kates is the president of the Vail Leadership Institute in Edwards. He can be reached at 970-926-7800 or jhk@vailleadership.org.


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