We Need Leaders Who Can Lear

Larry Price
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Wednesday - April 09, 2008
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There is an obvious dilemma facing the leaders of today: Success in a global market means they must depend on learning, yet most of these people don’t know how to learn in this day and age.

Oh, yes, they complain a lot about how our public school system does not put out graduates who are prepared to work in a competitive global market, but those who profess to be the best at learning are not very good at it. In Hawaii, we have strong and convincing evidence that the most basic problems can stump business leaders’ best efforts simply because they cannot deal with cultural issues that have been around for hundreds of years.

Example: Molokai Ranch claiming it was pulling up stakes simply because it could not overcome resistance from the Native Hawaiian population on the “Friendly Island” of Molokai.

The same kind of resistance greeted developers and executives of many hedge fund companies when they announced plans to turn the North Shore into another Waikiki. That idea received the same kind of reception when Del Webb introduced it more than 30 years ago. The developer’s dream of gambling casinos at Turtle Bay was enough to cloud the judgment of many wise executives.

The one similarity among all these business executives is that they are well-educated, high-powered, highly committed professionals who occupy key leadership positions in modern corporations.

It’s hard to listen to Aloha Airlines executives admitting that they saw their demise taking shape two-and-a-half years ago. The question is, why didn’t they learn back then that changes needed to be made if they were to prosper, like maybe something as simple as purchasing more fuel-efficient airplanes to cut fuel costs?

Another glaring example is our waste management problem at Waimanalo Gulch. It’s going to overflow soon, and negotiations to accommodate trash are at a near standstill.

There is a possibility that the reason smart executives have such a hard time learning is because they don’t have a good working definition of what learning is and how to bring it about. This causes mistakes. First, they look at learning as problem solving, so they end up focusing on identifying and correcting errors in the environment outside their companies. Today, managers also need to look inward, examining their own behavior to identify the way they inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they relate to others in the community.

Most professionals rarely experience failure, so they don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Consequently, when things go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and place blame on everyone but themselves. In this way, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment their company needs it the most.

Secondly, the mistake they make is believing that learning is basically a problem of motivation. Any coach will tell you that when members of a team have the right attitude and commitment, learning happens automatically. It may not happen overnight, but it is sure to happen.

Many modern executives avoid learning by hiring consultants and service representatives to do most of the work. As long as efforts at organizational learning and change stay focused on external organization factors like job redesign, compensation programs, performance reviews and leadership training, chances are these types of leaders are not going to change anything.

There is merit in transporting high-priced consultants to Hawaii to solve our problems, but more often than not they will assert that they were helpless to act differently, not because of any limitations of their own, but because of the limitation of others.

Example: Walter Ritte and Colette Machado were blamed as the main forces that caused Molokai Ranch to close down its business ventures on the island. The purpose of those kinds of assertions is a way for management to avoid embarrassment and feeling vulnerable or looking incompetent.

The paradox of this kind of executive behavior is that the knowledge they use to solve problems is rarely the one they think they use.

Said another way, managers consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they’re really acting. They have not learned that the public recognizes that kind of incompetence, especially when they see it on television.

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