Leaders Are Master Learners

December 27, 2011

I caught this interview with Kaki King on CNN today. I’ve never heard of Kaki King, so I was barely paying attention when she said something that just blew me away:

I play guitar for a living, and this guitar is way smarter than me. I know that, and I say this a lot, but I really mean it from the bottom of my heart. I am a guitar student, and I will be for the rest of my life. There is just too much to learn in a lifetime. There is something beautiful and challenging and humbling about that that I don’t want to let go of.

This is a woman that Rolling Stone magazine named a “Guitar God” in 2006, yet instead of considering herself a master, she embraces the role of life-long learner. Although the art of the music is interdependent on both her and her guitar, she exalts the potential of the instrument over her own strengths and accomplishments.

Gosh, I wish more leaders would view the people they’ve been given the privilege to lead that way. Our attitudes as leaders should be “these employees of mine are way smarter than me. I am a student of the potential of their behavior, and I could spend a lifetime learning how to better partner with them to create an organization where we, our customers, and our community can all thrive. I am humbled by the challenge of what our interdependence can achieve.”

Kaki’s comments about her music remind me that the art of leadership is in mastering the discipline and joy of continual learning. Kaki might disagree, but I think people are more fascinatingly complex than any musical instrument. There is just too much to learn in a lifetime about how to work well with others.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (16)

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  1. Steve Borek says:

    I conduct leadership workshops and I’m never surpised how the best leaders are curious. They’re hungry for new subjects to explore. They’re humble and say “I don’t know it all.” In fact there’s a correlation with the best learners and best leaders. They’re more likely to take on new challenges, turn around a division, or simply take calculated risks. The learning builds their psychological muscle. Thanks for your post.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Steve. Love that term “psychological muscle”!! Gonna give more thought to that one. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Rod Johnson says:


    This is one of your best blog entries to date. The wisdom is timeless.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Rod!

  3. I beleive thet you are correct,true leadership cannot happen without continued learning.

    Too many people confuse managing things with leading people. And too many see leadership as a nuisance at best, instead of the true priviledge it is. Thus, they don’t see the need to do any conitued learning.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Denise! Love the thoughts you shared – thanks! Bret

  4. Bret,

    What a simple, yet powerful lesson. If Kaki still has to keep learning, don’t we all?

    You always hear that leaders are readers and now it’s obvious because they are continually learning.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Connie. It is true that if you meet a really great leader you will find out she/he is a voracious reader as well. Thanks! Bret

  5. Dan says:

    I agree with Steve Borek’s comment about the curiosity of leaders. They are open, welcoming. They don’t stand back to criticize or complain it isn’t new; instead finding a way to create value, even for example, with skills training they may have participated in many times before. I recall one of my favorite clients some years ago in a basic active listening class modeling how to paraphrase. It was as if this was her first time through, and because she was totally engaged, her associates took it seriously, too. When I asked her about it, she just said, “The basics, you know, you can never learn them too well.” I honor that quality, and try to mimic it, too.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Dan. Thanks for sharing the excellent example. Love the thought that you can never stop mastering the basics. Thanks! Bret

  6. I agree that this is one of your best posts!

    Bret, my best clients can’t help themselves! They are curious about people, and never stop learning from them. One of the best things about people is that each of them is a little different today than they were yesterday – making the discipline of leadership even more interesting and complex.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, MJ. They can’t help themselves – love that! Thanks for sharing! Bret

  7. The day you stop learning is about the time you stop leading. Your post highlight the utmost importance of lifelong learning for leaders and I fully agree with that. Learning in today’s environment is the only sustainable competitive edge leaders and organizations have.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Stephan. Learned that from reading Senge years ago that learning is the ultimate source of sustainable competitive advantage. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  8. Judy says:

    I believe this is at the heart of what Jesus taught when he said to be like children–always full of faithful wonder and learning–and in his example to be a humble servant to others. The best leaders serve. I am an awe-inspired student of a group of amazing pre-school Sunday School kids who never fail to blow me away with their thoughts, imagination and creativity.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Judy. Agree with your thoughts. Thanks for sharing! Bret