Leadership: What Have You Learned Today?

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it saves leaders. When you're through learning and changing—you're dead.
Jun 01, 2005

Sander A. Flaum
In William Safire's last op-ed column for the New York Times on January 24, 2005, he explained "why I'm outta here" by quoting two very different men: James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who said, "Never retire. Your brain needs exercise or it will atrophy," and adman Bruce Barton, who a half-century previously had told the columnist, "When you're through changing, you're through."

At 75, Safire took their advice and moved on to serve as a chairman of the Dana Foundation, a New York-based organization committed to bringing the latest insights of neuroscience to the public through educational programs, articles, and books that make academic language plain and accessible to all. Safire embraced his new challenge with gusto. "We can quit a job," he wrote, "but we quit fresh involvement at our mental peril."

Leadership, and particularly, successful leadership, can drive one off the road of progress into the ditch of complacency. If you're working your way up, or failing on a regular basis, it makes sense to keep learning and embrace change. But if all is going well, what is your motivation to keep learning and changing as necessary?

What killed the cat saves the leader. As a leader, if you're not curious enough to learn something new every day, you're dead.

When I headed up the Becker agency, we didn't run daily seminars or bring in consultants weekly, yet I'd often walk around and ask people, "What new thing have you learned today?" The responsibility to learn was theirs. We'd encourage it and supplement it through our internal Becker College of Knowledge and our reverse mentorship program, but mostly we were trying to cultivate a new attitude—a curiosity about new things that stretched beyond immediate job responsibilities.

For adults, change is frightening. No book sums up the situation as succinctly as Spencer Johnson's 1998 runaway bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese? But would change be nearly as frightening if we remembered what we learned as children from another runaway bestseller, Curious George? Curious George was never afraid to try something new. Did he get into lots of trouble along the way and make us laugh? Of course. But he also showed how much fun it is to set out on an adventure and learn something new. How can we transform our adult fear of change back into our child-like curiosity?

In the course of interviewing leaders across a variety of industries, I found that nearly all of the successful ones valued learning something new daily and were intensely curious. Howard Safir is a prime example. Over the course of his career, Safir went from serving as an undercover agent putting away drug dealers to a desk job in Washington, DC, when his success was soon called upon to head up the newly established Witness Protection Program. After mastering the new language of witness protection, he moved on to serve as associate director for operations of the US Marshals Service. And then, in a surprising turn after a long career in police work, he accepted the post of commissioner of the New York Fire Department (NYFD).

Safir's secret is that he never got caught up in his own success. What motivates him is the challenge and fun of learning something new. After serving the NYFD, he was appointed as commissioner of the NYPD, blending his lifetime knowledge of police work with his love for the city. When he retired from that post, you might think Safir would sail off into the sunset (he is an avid sailor)—or at least into another government position. But not Safir. He opted for a new challenge—entrepreneurship. He partnered with former corporate security chief of IBM, Joseph Rossetti, to form the security consultancy SafirRossetti. Even there, the journey continues: from entrepreneur to major corporate CEO in short order, and from one New York office to offices all over the world. What drives him is a simple, unbounded, insatiable curiosity that pushes him to learn new things without an end in sight.

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