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“L” Is for Learning

motivation Jul 15, 2019

By Nguyen “Tom” Griggs


For this column, I continue using acronyms to spell out the words BLACK BELT, as they relate to teams and leadership. This month, I’ll address the second “L” in black belt leadership, which stands for Learning. Let’s start with one of my favorite Zen parables.


Empty Your Cup

A philosophy professor once met with a Zen master to learn more about Zen teachings. They met at the master’s home and spent the afternoon talking. It became apparent that the professor was not interested in learning. He wanted to show that his beliefs and philosophy were superior to the Zen master’s teachings.

After some time, the wise Zen master paused to make some tea. She brought over two cups and began to pour tea for the professor. As the professor proudly continued to chatter on, he noticed that the Zen master was pouring so much tea into his cup that it overflowed and spilled. 

The professor exclaimed rather angrily, “What is wrong with you? Can you not see that my cup can no longer hold any more tea?”

The Zen master calmly replied, “Kind professor, can you not see that just like your cup, your mind is so full of your beliefs and arrogance that it cannot hold any new ideas or even entertain new approaches?”

The professor retorted, “I don’t understand what you mean, you foolish woman,” to which the Zen master responded, “If you truly want to learn and grow, first, dear sir, you must empty your cup.”

I often use this parable in training sessions and it always garners lots of agreement and vigorous, affirming head-nods from the audience.

However, I want to ask you a simple question: Have you emptied your cup lately? When was the last time that you cleared your mind enough to allow other ideas and beliefs to be entertained?

This is the first and truest step of learning, my friends. Some people may be closed off because they believe they are right/correct in every thought and action. Other times, people simply fear change or that which is different, so they will not willingly do anything to invite difference.


Fighting a Losing Battle

I used to be a competitor and a judge in kata and point-sparring tournaments. I recall a purple belt competitor in my ring that lost his match because he used the same pattern repeatedly. And guess what? His opponent figured him out and then adeptly utilized dodging, blocking and counterstriking with great accuracy

The sad part was that this young man’s instructor was constantly providing great advice. But the young man stuck to his patterns of movement and lost. At one point, the instructor even told the purple belt that his opponent could read his movements, so adjust! But he wouldn't, so he lost.

Leaders that don’t learn are like fighters who refuse to change their tactics, even when it would benefit them. They are going to lose.


Leaders Are Learners

In Leaders are Learners: The Best Leaders are Constant Learners, authors Mikkelsen and Jarche state that “Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode.”

While you may experience some “learning” fatigue, it’s completely worth it to your evolution as a leader. More importantly, your team and people will also benefit from your efforts.

The authors continue to promote learning as an element of effective leaders by saying, “If work is learning and learning is the work, then leadership should be all about enabling learning.”

Basically, effective leaders will not only value learning, but will promote it and expect it from their team members.

Here are two ways you can foster and enjoy learning in your schools:


1. Use books and articles. Have your team read a book or article. Each team member, including yourself, will then give a short educational presentation on a chapter or section. I suggest using structured questions or teaching points as a guide.

For example, a person can relate how the content of a chapter or a passage ties into your organization’s core values. This activity promotes growth, understanding and enhances valuable presentation skills.


2. Create nonacademic learning experiences. Recently, a client asked me about using unconventional bonding experiences. We decided that her team should gather at someone’s home to learn how to cook an ethnic dish.

It worked and now they made cooking a frequent learning experience. Additionally, escape rooms, volunteering and games (board and cards, etc.) are fun and effective.

Again, tie the experience back to your school’s values and core beliefs. But whatever you do, tie everything back to actionable steps.


Nguyen “Tom” Griggs is a professional consultant/speaker in the areas of Teams, Leadership and Conflict and can be reached at [email protected]

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