Why it’s important for leaders to maintain a “learner’s mind”

Over the past decade as a hospice volunteer I have supported dozens of patients in telling their life stories and preserving them for future generations.

More often than not, patients were energized by the process of reviewing their lives. In addition, as they reflected on their experiences they often discovered an overarching sense of purpose that was previously invisible to them. 

And almost always they would tell stories that were meaningful to me, such as this one I offered in an April 2015 post.

When leaders’ egos grow too tall

“There’s an ego looking for a place to inflate,” my table mate at a Washington, DC meeting of high-level officials whispered to me as a prominent member of the education establishment entered the room, a prophecy that unfortunately soon proved itself to be true.

I was reminded of that meeting when Jean, a patient I was visiting in my role as a hospice volunteer, shared with me a simple but profound poem she had recently written:

“The long, dark corridor of life narrows at the end./And those whose ego grew too tall will have to learn to bend.” 

While Jean was describing the “long, dark corridor” of her own life as it narrowed in her 90s, her warning regarding egos that grow too tall without learning to bend also obviously applies to education leaders.

Signs that a leader’s ego has grown too tall include:

• Enjoying hearing himself or herself talk, usually at great length, rather than listening to others.

• Believing that he or she generally knows more than others, including being the only one with the wisdom to understand problems and how to solve them.

Ways in which leaders can learn to bend:

• Maintaining a “learner’s mind.” Leaders with such mindsets assume that they may not know what they don’t know.

• Recognizing that the perspectives of others are essential in identifying and solving problems.That means that they seek first to understand by spending far more time listening than speaking.

• Remembering that while leaders have unique roles and responsibilities, those who are successful cultivate a community of equals rather than one of  privilege and hierarchy.

What have I missed?

2 Responses to “Why it’s important for leaders to maintain a “learner’s mind””


  1. 1 rickrepicky April 3, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Great poem. Kearns Goodwin identified these “bending” traits of President Lincoln:
    • Admitted mistakes
    • Shared credit when things went right
    • Shouldered blame when things went wrong
    • Hosted frequent open receptions (called popular opinion baths) for
    people of all social ranks to give feedback. “I can never forget the
    popular assemblage from which I have come.”
    • Opinion Baths allowed:
    – Effective timing & step-by-step change initiatives
    – Empathy – addressed doubts of others.
    • Was authentic – articulated PURPOSE of the War in Gettysburg
    Address without inflating himself

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks April 4, 2019 at 5:55 pm

    As always, Rick, I appreciate the richness of the ideas that you contribute to this post and others…


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