Why Unlearning is Important for Leaders

By Barry O Reilly, Business Advisor, Entrepreneur, author of ‘Unlearn‘ and IMI faculty member

As the pace of innovation increases, leaders must have the agility and clarity to not only learn new skills, but unlearn those that no longer contribute to their success.

What is Unlearning?

It used to be the case that an individual’s knowledge would last a lifetime. Not only that, but much of it would be passed down for generations and still be highly useful.

However, as the pace of innovation increases, once useful knowledge becomes rapidly obsolete. Instead of adapting, most people find themselves stuck in their habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. They fail to recognise the new situational reality until it is too late.

Even the most successful leaders often find themselves faced with questions like:

Why am I not living up to my expectations?

Why can’t I solve this problem?

Why do I constantly avoid taking on this specific challenge?

I’ve tried everything I can think of—how can I get a breakthrough?

The key is to expect change, notice the signals, and make the necessary adjustments. This requires not just learning new skills or gaining new knowledge, but unlearning what is no longer helpful.

1. It can act as a shock-proofing mechanism
Amid the upheaval of the past year, learning has taken a back seat as leaders’ priorities have pivoted to stabilising their business – or even perhaps keeping it afloat. The disruption caused by the pandemic has forced a recalibration of established mindsets and methods, even those that have been successful in the past. Throughout the past 12 months, innovative leaders have spearheaded change initiatives amid uncertainty, turning the crisis into an opportunity to grow. By adopting a mindset to unlearn behaviours that are no longer contributing to success and accepting that change is inevitable, leaders can reframe their thinking to adopt a future-focused approach. This proactive tactic can be a boon for a leader and the organisation generally, acting as a shock-proofing mechanism to cushion any future unexpected blows.

2. Entrenched mindsets limit our potential
Most leaders know that to thrive in the modern business landscape they must continuously transform the way they do business. Whether that takes the form of quicker decision-making, optimising the customer experience or something entirely different, they must act with agility and clarity. One of the major problems that leaders face, however, is a rigid and fixed thought process in how they take on these challenges. They tend to get caught in a myopic view of how to deal with issues, preferring the predictable, short-term solution over a newly conceived, innovative one. Unlearning helps to break down these barriers, embedding a curious mindset that embraces long-term thinking and creativity over an entrenched one that keeps your leadership and business stagnant.

3. It creates a sustainable pattern of personal and business growth
By adopting the Cycle of Unlearning – consisting of Unlearn, Relearn and Breakthrough – leaders have been able to develop lasting habits and behaviours to grow both professionally and personally. Reaping all the benefits of this cycle relies on individual effort and the commitment to use it intentionally in your life and work. By implementing this cycle into your thought processes, you will reinvigorate your mindset, transform your thinking and create a sustainable pattern of growth.

This first step requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviours are limiting your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them.

As you unlearn your limiting-but-ingrained methods, behaviours, and thinking, you can take in new data, information, and perspectives.

New information and insights inform and guide new behaviours, perspectives, and mindsets. Breakthroughs provide an opportunity to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and provide a springboard for tackling bigger and more audacious challenges.

4. It makes innovation our default setting
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dubbed the Amazon building in which he works ‘Day 1’, with the idea being that every day is like the first day at his company. According to Bezos, ‘Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.’ By leaving our comfort zones and taking a risk with ideas, and by tying those ambitions to a larger vision, we as leaders can become innovators by default. Having the ability to consciously unlearn the things that brought us success in the past maintains a fresh and daring mindset and ultimately provides a springboard for personal and organisational metamorphosis.