The Leader’s Kryptonite

By Ben Owden ~ Leadership Development Trainer at WhyLead on 11 May 2020Leadership


From the moment we are conceived in our mothers' wombs we become creatures of learning. We start absorbing information all around us. In this earliest stage of human life, learning is mainly for survival. "Learning is crucial to the survival of organisms across their life span, including during embryonic development." (Ecol Evol 2016)


Along the way, we learn a lot of things that are factually false, morally compromising, and contextually adaptable, prone to irrelevance, outdating and obsoletion (Though at times we treat them as holy grail). By the time we become adults, a lot of the things we have learned either don't apply to our current context, are outdated, are obsolete, false or virtuously compromising to a degree where adapting new leadership insights, approaches and practices seem incongruent to self.


At this point in our lives, unlearning becomes the most important form of learning. Unlearning ideas you once embraced because they helped you survive and thrive but are choking your current reality. Businesses fail, families break, relationships die, careers are crippled because we are not ready to UNLEARN what we have once believed to be the way things are done and unlearn what we once believed to be the truth to hold onto.


There is a push for companies and individuals to become learning creatures, and a lot of people are using this COVID19 period to learn new things, but I believe, to be effective learners, we must first become effective unleaners. Futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler, said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." A reluctance to unlearn is the leader's kryptonite.


According to IGI Global, unlearning is a, "dynamic process that identifies and removes ineffective and obsolete knowledge and routines."


The world is changing at a pace that is hard to keep up with. In the area of organizational design, we are seeing an evolution from formal hierarchies to fluid networks. The nature of how and where we work is going to look different when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. A decade or two ago, so-called productive narcissistic leaders were in high demand, and now emotionally intelligent leaders are on the rise. "Many of the paradigms we learned in school and built our careers on are either incomplete or ineffective." (Mark Bonchek, 2016) Things are constantly changing, from how we communicate, to how we market, to how and who we hire. Wellness psychology is becoming commonplace in leadership conversations, and who knows what will come next. This list can go on and on.


This consistent change poses an important and urgent challenge for leaders. First, by revealing something profound: just because you've mastered how to thrive in one era, does not mean your mastery will apply in a different era. Just because you've mastered to thrive in one context, does not mean your mastery will apply in a different context. And with this revelation comes a challenge: every leaders' context constantly demands them to unlearn the irrelevant and acquire the relevant. Failure to do so will hurt those you lead and your organizations' health and growth. And, it will hurt you.


The Challenge of Unlearning

Unlearning is hard and painful. Mentally, we feel a certain sense of self-betrayal, a letting-go of something that was once profound and useful. This pain is a result of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is, "the mental conflict that occurs when a person's behaviors and beliefs do not align." And this conflict leads to feelings of discomfort, tension, and unease within us. We react differently to these feelings, some reject the new information or behavior to retain their internal comfort, and some persevere through the discomfort, uneasiness, and tension to acquire new beliefs and behaviors.


I believe to consistently help yourself persevere through the uneasiness and tension caused by unlearning to acquire new beliefs and eventually new behaviors, you need to develop a healthy mindset of your relationship with knowledge and habit. Knowledge and habit are to be held as long as they are contextually relevant and useful in producing the desired outcome in the healthiest way possible. And when no longer leading us to this end, we should not sabotage our growth by holding on to it.



The Three Questions to Help You Know it is Time to Unlearn

  • Does the knowledge and insight I operate on, contribute to my current success both personally and professionally?


  • Do I feel completely congruent when I hear and/or act upon newly discovered and proven insights in bettering myself as a leader?


  • Is the knowledge and habits I currently operate on ushering me and/or my organization into a future where I/we are thriving?


If you answered no to any of these questions, it might be time to unlearn a few things and make way for more contextually relevant and productive insights.


The Process of Unlearning

Now that you have established the need to unlearn, here is how the process of unlearning looks like. This process serves as one of many models, and if you have another model, please share on the comment section at the end of this article:


  • First, you have to develop an insight-flexible mindset: A mentality that is grounded in the belief that things are always changing, and just because something worked in one context and time, it doesn't mean it's timeless and going to work in every context.


  • Secondly, you need to identify the habits, ideas, philosophies, approaches, and bodies of knowledge that are not helping you succeed. The ones that are making newly discovered insights that are more contextually relevant in producing the right results feel incongruent to who you are


  • Thirdly, you have to develop a new body of knowledge to replace the failing one: For some people this could mean enrolling in a formal professional course, attending a conference, a seminar, a workshop or reading books that cover in-depth the new insights to replace the old ones.



  • And lastly, you need to build a support system: Get people around you who can usher you into the new mindset or behavior. Seek expert counsel, coaching or mentoring. Essentially, it is all about making sure your environment serves to instill the new mindset or behavior into your DNA.

Remember, Leaders are learners, and to be effective learners, we must first become effective unleaners. So, let me not take up more of your time, I am sure you have some unlearning to do.

Happy Unlearning!


By Ben Owden ~ Leadership Development Trainer at WhyLead