When the most physically dominant player of his generation goes back to school because he wants to “learn the secrets,” it makes news. NBA all-star Shaquille O’Neal recently took a crash course in sports broadcasting journalism at Syracuse University in preparation for a career after basketball. O’Neal is no media neophyte; as reported in the New York Times, he’s starred in movies, made rap albums, performed in over 250 commercials, and done too many post-game interviews to remember. Still, O’Neal aspires to something more — to do a sports talk show — and to do that he wants to learn to develop and deliver stories on the air.
O’Neal’s experience reminds me of what thought leader Jim Collins did a few years ago. In addition to being a best-selling author and much sought after consultant, Collins is a climber, and has been since his teen years. But sometime in his early 40s, as he writes in the Epilogue of Upward Bound, he knew that if he wanted to get better he would have to relearn his climbing technique. And so he put himself under the training of two climbing coaches. “The most important lessons…” as Collins explains, “lay not in what I needed to learn, but in what I first needed to unlearn.” It was arduous and awkward at first, but Collins persisted and made progress. In honor of turning fifty, Collins scaled the 3,000-foot vertical face of Yosemite’s famed El Capitan in just 19 hours, a feat that takes most experienced climbers at least 24 hours.
There are lessons for managers in what O’Neal and Collins have done. O’Neal honed his basketball skills through practice and coaching; Collins holds an MBA from Stanford and is an accomplished teacher. Each has learned how to learn in one field and has been able to transfer that skill to another field. That transference discipline is essential to continued self-development.
Peter Drucker advised in his famous Harvard Business Reviewessay, “Managing Oneself,” that it is critical to realize how you learn. For example, Drucker writes that Churchill, a poor student, “learn[ed] by writing.” Beethoven wrote in his sketchbooks but did not refer to them when he composed; ideas and melodies had been committed to his subconscious. Speaking personally, before I teach something I feel more comfortable when I write out my ideas first. Recognizing your learning method is important because it defines the way you absorb information and process it as knowledge. As children we are force-fed in classrooms (and not always well either); as adults we need to use our intelligence to discover how we master what we learn.
Most often you cannot receive more schooling, especially when dealing with critical issues that are fast-breaking and in which there is no body of formalized instruction. You will need to figure things out for yourself. For most leaders figuring things out is second nature; it is way they have arrived in positions of leadership. But the best leaders are those that are never afraid to ask questions. Rather than a question being a sign of ignorance; it is admission ticket to learning as well as a good way to build rapport and trust with colleagues.
Neither O’Neal nor Collins let their egos interfere with their desire to learn. That is a good lesson for the rest of us. There is little to gain by allowing your ego to supersede your desire to learn. Too often we may feel too embarrassed go back to the classroom, or even to ask questions, for fear of looking stupid. Actually the stupid thing to do is to fake it. The smart thing is to apply your learning skills.