The First World War was a war like no others. Never had a war been fought on this scale. Never had modern weapons, including not just rifles but machine guns, long range canons, dreadnoughts and even gas been used like this. Never had communications been used as they were during this war. And never had so many died gaining such little territory in the killing-fields of the Western Front. There was so much that was new in this war, and there was much to learn. The wise observed, reviewed, adapted and changed. In essence they kept on learning.

This was one of the key leadership lessons of the First World War. Good leaders asked lots of questions to gain the information they needed to win the battles and ultimately the war. They didn’t bury their heads in the sand and hope it would be ok, or that the war would go away. They didn’t rely just on past knowledge or expertise. The world had changed and was changing so they needed to change too.

The same is true today. The world in which we live continues to change at pace. We see new technologies, new ideas and new language appearing all the time. It’s hard to keep up, but the wise will take note and change. Successful leaders are those who are able and willing to learn. Alvin Toffler famously expressed it like this: ‘The illiterate of the future are not those that cannot read or write. They are those that cannot learn, unlearn, relearn.’ 

This requires leaders who are innovators and who are committed to life-long learning. No longer can you learn a skill or apprentice a profession and then you’re trained for life. That just won’t do. What’s needed is astute leaders. Inquisitive leaders. Adaptable leaders. Learning leaders.

For all his failings in the First World War, Winston Churchill sought to be such a leader. He was constantly asking questions and looking for another way to do things. By sharp observation and careful questioning he learned so much about warfare, about tactics, about people, about politcs, about other nations and so much more during the First World War, that when he came to lead the nation in the Second World War he had a vast amount of cumulative knowledge to wisely apply. He sought to learn from his mistakes too, seeing everything as a learning experience. Good leaders should do the same. That’s why Proverbs 1:5 says, ‘Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.’ 

Being a life-long learner is actually harder than most of us think. Mark Batterson helpfully explains why, saying: ‘Half of learning is learning. The other half of learning is unlearning. Unfortunately, unlearning is twice as hard as learning. It’s like missing your exit on the freeway. You have to drive to the next exit and then double back. Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two-mile error. Unlearning is twice as hard, and it often takes twice as long. It is harder to get old thoughts out of your mind than it is to get new thoughts into your mind.’ But if we’re to be true learners, we must. Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.

What have you learned, unlearned and relearned recently that will help you lead better into the future? And what are you doing to encourage life-long learning in others?