The Leader Apprentice: 5 Ways to Master the Learning Mindset

Kennedy said that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” so how do we make sure we keep learning?

It’s easy to get caught up in the daily business of getting things done.  But if we’re not careful, though we may accomplish much, we don’t become better in the process.  To improve, we have to make a deliberate effort to learn.  One way to do that is to adopt a Leader Aprentice mindset; today we’ll talk about five ways to make that happen.


The Leader Apprentice: 5 Ways to Master the Learning Mindset

The Apprentice

One day a carpenter and his apprentice were working on a house.  The carpenter was nailing down siding.  As the apprentice watched, he noticed that the carpenter would reach into his nail pouch and pull out a nail.

About half the time he would use that nail to install more siding.  The other half of the time he would toss the nail over his shoulder and reach for another one.

The apprentice, always eager to learn, stopped him to ask, “Why are you throwing those nails away?”

The carpenter explained, “If I pull a nail out of my pouch and it’s pointed toward the house, I nail it in.  If it’s pointed toward me, I throw it away because it’s defective.”

The apprentice thought about this bit of wisdom for a moment, then a puzzled look crossed his face.  He summoned the courage to ask a second question.  “Is it possible that those nails were made for the other side of the house?”

The Apprentice Mindset

Apprenticeships have been around for a long time.  First developed in the later Middle Ages, the apprentice relationship enabled someone to learn a trade under the tutelage of a master craftsman.

Traditionally the apprentice gave his time and labor (often up to seven years of indentured servitude) in exchange for room, board, and learning the basics of the trade.  Many would go on to become journeymen, earning pay while working for other master craftsmen.  Some aspired to become masters in their own right.

Like any trade, leadership is a learned skill that is best acquired in the doing.  With repeated application over time and under the guidance of a skilled craftsman, we too can become better at our trade.

The carpenter’s apprentice in the story above clearly has a long way to go, but at least he’s on the right track.  Asking questions is only the first of five great ways to help you master the Apprentice Leader mindset.

5 Ways to Become an Apprentice Leader

1. Ask Questions.  Too often as leaders we feel as though we are supposed to be issuing orders and dispensing guidance.  Certainly there’s a time for that.  But a lot of the time, the opposite is true.

We can learn a lot more if instead we ask good questions and listen to the answer.  As Wally Bock’s Uncle used to say:

You can’t learn anything while you’re talking. Click To Tweet

By asking questions you can still nudge thinking in a different direction.  But at the same time, the act of asking highlights your respect for the person you are speaking with, allows you to learn from what they share, and helps you understand what they don’t know.

Asking questions can take you a lot farther than giving answers.

2. Find a master craftsman.  Others have been down the same road we are on and have the scars to prove it.  Seek out those who have traveled it well and learn from their experiences.

Choose who you apprentice to with discretion.  Focus on demonstrated competence, strong principle, and the ability to teach others.  You don’t want to be trying to emulate our carpenter, he’s still working on basic skills himself.

If your mentors only tell you that you are awesome, it's time to find other mentors. - Cosette Gutierrez Click To Tweet

Learn the leadership trade by emulating a master craftsman.

3. Admit mistakes.  If we are actively on the job and trying to get things done, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes.  It’s also natural for us to want to cover them up and keep going in hopes that nobody noticed.  But you can be pretty sure someone did, and now they are watching to see what you will do.

Owning up to your error when you make a leadership mistake is a solid first response because it encourages a culture of honesty and trust within your team.  Beyond that, it opens the door for your own learning.

What’s that first step in those 12-Step recovery programs?  Admitting that there’s a problem.  Until we do, denial prevents us from absorbing the lesson and learning from the experience.

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them. – Bruce Lee Click To Tweet

See mistakes as a path to learning.

4. Read.  Modern apprenticeship programs feature lots of on-the-job training, but there is also a healthy dose of classroom learning.

As a leader apprentice, take some time out for a little self-improvement classwork of your own.  Set goals and be deliberate about it.

Whether it’s reading about how other leaders overcame adversity, studying books on leadership, or taking a course or two, you can broaden your experience and skill base by taking yourself to school.

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. – Harry S. Truman Click To Tweet

Intentionally invest in your own development.

5. Find your own apprentice.  If you ever want to learn something better, try teaching it.  When you have to explain your thoughts and experiences to others, it deepens your own understanding as well.  Look for those on your team who show potential and start the conversation.

Give them learning opportunities by being smart about what you delegate. I think you’ll find that your interactions with them before, during and after not only improve their abilities, but yours as well.

Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. – Tom Peters Click To Tweet

Find your future leaders, and teach them.

The Leader Apprentice – The Takeaway

Kennedy reminds us that to improve as leaders we must always be learning.  Adopting a Leader Apprentice mindset is one way to help us continually do that.

If we ask questions, admit error, seek out others to emulate, engage in self study, and teach apprentices of our own, we can’t help but become better at our trade.

Perhaps some day, we will become master craftsmen.

But even then, I think what Ernest Hemingway said about writing is equally applicable to leadership:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. - Hemingway, The Wild Years Click To Tweet

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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