Placeholder Image

Contact Us

Form submitted successfully!

History is littered with personal and corporate examples of those whose failure to read the future proved costly and, in some cases, fatal. We cling to our old ideas and beliefs, because they worked for us before, even when they are shown to be wrong or irrelevant in today’s world.

Eric Hoffer, an American moral and social philosopher, said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

This rings true, especially for leaders at the top of the pack who are responsible for the general direction in which their company moves; their stubbornness and unwillingness to try to learn are often cloaked in an arrogance that refuses to see a better way and an immovability to anything that isn’t “our way” or “the way it’s always been”. This stubbornness often masquerades itself as confidence, decisiveness, and as merely being assertive. These are qualities that should otherwise be seen in a positive light, but not if they are serving to prop up stubborn old ideas!

As we have seen in previous blogs, continuous learning alleviates this mental inertia. Alas, our brain is but a vessel of finite volume; plus, it does not operate at its full capacity! So, what are we to do with all of the knowledge that keeps coming in via continuous learning? We unlearn it. At the onset, it is extremely necessary for us to do away with a common misnomer. Unlearning is NOT the same as forgetting. It is the process of letting go of old ideas and behaviours to make room for new ones. It’s important for leaders because it helps them adapt to the opportunities and challenges that arise in their organizations and in the uncertain world they operate in. When you unlearn, it means that you can relearn the same concept if you need it in the future. You can visualise it as being backed up somewhere on the drive, but not being present in the cache memory. That is the key difference between unlearning and forgetting because when you forget, it has been deleted from your memory; you will not be able to revisit it even if you want to.

Put simply unlearning is the process of letting go of outdated ideas and behaviours in order to make room for new ones. And while it may sound simple, it’s actually quite challenging. Our brains are wired to hold onto familiar patterns and ways of thinking, which can make it difficult to embrace change. Unfortunately, the path of least resistance is often the pathway we have used over and over to navigate the roles we occupy. After all these “ways” have been successful enough to get us here, logically we should continue to practice these “winning ways”. Neuroscience tells us that unlearning is critical to our success. When we learn something new, our brains create new neural pathways that allow us to access that information quickly and easily. However, if we continue to rely on those same pathways, we can become stuck in our ways and resistant to change.

By actively working to break old habits and thought patterns, we can create new neural pathways and expand our capacity for growth and innovation. Important for everyone; this ability assumes critical importance with leaders; after all boardrooms are the place where challenges come thundering in every day and innovative solutions are whispered out at an equally rapid pace.

Unlearning will, no doubt be tough- much of what we have learned we have done so unconsciously and we are usually unaware of the mental models and behavioural patterns that we have created for ourselves. They are our lifeblood; our default mode of functioning and we are often not even aware that they exist. Sometimes, we may be aware that our existing models and patterns are becoming outdated, but, as we have built our reputation and our success on them, letting go can seem like starting afresh and losing our sense of who we are. Here are some important pointers to keep in mind if you are a leader trying to unlearn:

  • Unlearning things is hard work, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight; start slow but keep moving forward. Habit is a demon not easily slayed. Find yourself some “safe” situations to test new behaviours and ask for feedback on what people felt and the impact it had on them.
  • Once you feel you are going in the right direction, try to identify what triggers your old way of thinking or behaving; are there situations where you fall back into your previous default mode?
  • Once you have identified your triggers, you can prepare “alternatives” to the old habits or patterns- building new habits basically.

Of course, building habits at an advanced age (considering the fact that leaders are usually above the age of forty years) can be tedious task- making somebody look uncomfortable. The goal is to go from being ‘consciously uncomfortable’ to being ‘unconsciously comfortable’.

For all C-suite level leaders, managers, scrum masters, and pod leads, unlearning is a process that is absolutely worth it and brings a lot of rewards in the long run.