The Leadership Skill of being able to Unlearn: Create Value through Unlearning

There are assumptions you hold, and  assumptions that have a hold on youProf Robert Kegan of Harvard

As adults, too many of us are still puppets to the past, doing what was taught to us forty-years after our “indoctrination!” The essential leadership quality of tenacity sometimes hinders success. There is a saying that old ideas only die when the people holding them die. Irwing Corey said if we do not change direction we will end up where we are going (sometimes nowhere!)

In today’s world, change is happening so fast that for us to keep up we must change, and to do that we must unlearn. Unlearning is a prerequisite for problem solving, innovation and creativity. If leaders wish to be progressive and have lateral thinking, they have to learn to unlearn. Leaders who imbibe unlearning avoid strategic mistakes and avoid missing the bus. They are more adept on capitalising on the winds of change

Unlearning is harder than learning. Unlearning is exactly what it says: Intending to let go of what we have already learned or acquired. It is not about right or wrong. It is about being open to and exploring something that lies underneath the judgment, underneath the right and the wrong.

Unlearning could be also described as stripping the existing paint of a wall so that new paint sticks. As you know stripping is 70% of the job and repainting is 30%.

Examine a case in the field of medicine. For years doctor’s felt ulcers were caused by stress and spicy food. In 1985, a young Australian doctor, Barry Marshall, had the audacity to suggest that ulcers they were caused by bacteria. When he first proposed his theory at a medical conference, he was booed off the stage! Twenty years, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Just imagine how many more people could have been better served if only hundreds of arrogant doctors were willing to unlearn!

The future is in how fast you are at unlearning. Yes, we’re under pressure to learn more and to learn quickly, but the future goes to those who can unlearn faster than the rest, because you can’t always learn something new until you first let go of something else. And learning to let go of rules is one of the first things we (and our managers) have to learn to be quicker at.

Sometimes that means letting go of something that served you well for a long time. And that’s the toughest thing. Think of all the things you might have to unlearn, even in the course of a year: For middle and senior managers,

* Unlearn what your target market is (because it just changed)

* Unlearn that you work for your company (because you work for your customers)

* Unlearn short term thinking (because you will get long term success)

* Unlearn that your product will last for ever and competition will not catch up

* Unlearn you will remain market leaders (because Mahindra Motors just overtook Tata Motors)

* Unlearn old policies and procedures (because the new generation requires different rules)

* Unlearn the way you advertise and market (because your market just got a lot smarter).

* Unlearn the way you approach your brand (because it’s no longer within your control).

* Unlearn the way you teach (because learners need to unlearn and learn simultaneously)

* Unlearn the way you treat your employees (because before you know it, that “meets expectations” review might come back to haunt    you on a blog)

* Unlearn the technology you use (self-explanatory… we’re all living this one)

* Unlearn plain vanilla business excellence (because you need Customer Excellence)

* Unlearn that processes and systems solve everything (because you must have customer centric attitudes)

* Unlearn that success leads to success (because Bill Gates says it is a lousy teacher; it makes smart people    feel they can’t lose)

* Unlearn your role is just to lead and be a good administrator (because your role is to create value)

You can add to this unlearn list!

Now leaders have to learn that their role is to create value for all stakeholders and unlearn that old paradigm that profit is the purpose of a business. Unlearning will help you create value faster

Contact Customer Value Foundation for unlearning and  Creating Value

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2 Comments on “The Leadership Skill of being able to Unlearn: Create Value through Unlearning”


  1. […] The Leadership Skill of being able to Unlearn: Create Value through Unlearning (customervaluefoundation.wordpress.com) […]


  2. Sir, thanks a lot for this wonderful article, it is really thought provoking…

    As discussed with you last time we meet , I have joined Management Program from Faculty of Management Studies -Delhi University. It been a week since I am attending evening class and was adjusting with a new schedule and a balance between work+ studies and Family… which was keeping me busy…

    Days before I met you , I thought I new everything about customer ( Being a Black belt, master black belt in six sigma) … But I have realized I no nothing ..

    I will study both your books and will get back to you for next steps…

    Wanted to thank you for a new thought and will like to be in touch with you to guide and mentor me….

    Mr Rajesh Koul
    Vice President. Business Excellence & PMO
    DLF Pramerica life Insurance Company Ltd.


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