Justin Langer: Having a novice mindset will make you a better leader, just ask Bruce Lee

Justin Langer
The Nightly
Curiosity, as they say, killed the cat.  But it is also curiosity that defines the great leaders. 
Curiosity, as they say, killed the cat.  But it is also curiosity that defines the great leaders.  Credit: nicolas_/Getty Images

Curiosity, as they say, killed the cat.

But it is also curiosity that defines the great leaders.

In my inspiration room at home, one of my favourite quotes is: “A single conversation with a wise person, is better than years of study.”

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Last weekend I had to fly to Sydney for a charity speaking event.

My normal mode of aeroplane travel is to put on my headphones, do some work, read a book, or watch a movie. I am never rude to the person sitting next to me, but it is rare for me to have a conversation with them, as flying time is often a time to switch off and relax.

This status quo was disrupted on the flight last weekend when the lady in the adjacent seat introduced herself to me and told me of a mutual friend we share. One conversation led to another and, three-and-a-half hours later, we were still chatting.

My ‘new friend’ is the CEO of a uranium company in Canada, and we spent the whole flight talking about the mining industry, sustainability, ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance), and the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Who would have thought?

A year ago, I joined the board of Mineral Resources, and I have said many times that the learning curve has been so steep that it has felt like my brain has been bursting out of my skull. Scary as that has felt at times, the growth and education of my mind has been utterly inspiring.

If you had told me 18 months ago, when this board opportunity was presented to me, that I would have long conversations about mining, I would have told you, you were out of your mind.

I have found so many times in my life, it is this ‘novice philosophy’ that has been instrumental in any development I have had.

The thought of talking on a flight about the mining game, once a potential mind-numbing and foreign conversation for me, is now a totally absorbing and fascinating subject.

In many ways I feel like a complete novice but, as I have found so many times in my life, it is this ‘novice philosophy’ that has been instrumental in any development I have had.

Like studying or doing an apprenticeship, constant learning can be tiring — even exhausting — but in the end, it is necessary and exhilarating.

The novice mindset means I ask a lot of questions, and through kindness or wisdom, I have been offered so many times the response of, “there is no such thing as a dumb question”.

When I was coaching, I’d often be asked about my aspirations. My reply would be that I just hope I remain a novice coach until the day I stop coaching. In other words, I hope I keep learning, improving, and testing myself and others.

If I could do that, then the journey would never end.

British-American author, speaker, and organisational consultant Simon Sinek is a great teacher. I have read a couple of his books and been inspired by his work.

He is best known for his book “Start with Why” (highly recommended). His TED Talk of the same name, which explores how great leaders and organisations inspire action by focusing on their “why” or purpose, is a must-watch if you have a curious mind.

Sinek’s work centres around leadership and communication, and during the week I was sent one of his short philosophies that resonated with me.

Simon Sinek author of book Start With Why
Simon Sinek author of book Start With Why Credit: supplied/supplied

In it he says: “The best leaders I know, are students of leadership. There is no such thing as an expert leader. It doesn’t exist. Like there’s no such thing as an expert parent. It doesn’t exist.

“Even the most senior leaders are constantly reading books, reading articles, watching talks, having conversations — all the time about leadership. They are always in learning mode. Anyone who wants to be a leader needs to choose to be student of the subject.”

In the same vein, I watched an apprentice in action during the week. Doing some work on our house, the young apprentice plumber worked tirelessly all day.

Call me a nuffy, but I watched him at work for a while, and to be completely honest I felt envious of his pursuits. Jobs that were probably menial to them, had me enthralled.

With his boss watching over him, I couldn’t help but think of the novice theory of learning. When I asked him about how he was enjoying his apprenticeship he told me: “It’s good, but I’m looking forward to it being over.”

When I quizzed him about this, he told me he was looking forward to dropping the ‘title’ of apprentice and replacing that tag with ‘plumber’.

Although I hear similar sentiments in all industries, my advice to young men, or women, would be that I get the ‘title’ thing, but never stop learning, being curious, finding new ways of doing things better.

This way of thinking is so much more fun than standing still, or thinking you already know everything already. Ask lots of questions, no matter how dumb you might think they are, because this is the best way to learn from others who have already made the mistakes before you have to.

I have seen so many people come unstuck by thinking they ‘know already’.

Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury
Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury Credit: unknown/supplied

When I was a teenager, my martial arts instructor told me a story about the greatest martial artist Bruce Lee. Determined to master his skills in the art, Bruce learned a valuable lesson from his sensei.

He told him a story that is now tattooed into my mind.

A university professor visited a Japanese Zen master. It was obvious from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen, as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge.”

Do you now people like this?

The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have a cup of tea. The master poured his visitor a cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself. ‘The cup is overfull, no more will go in.’

“‘Like this cup’, the master said, ‘you are so full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’”

I have never forgotten this story because it is a constant reminder of learning, practising, and studying with a curious intent.

During the week I also had conversations with two leaders in our community. Both, from different industries, and I am grateful for the experience.

Sifting the information is the great art, not getting it.

Although I was invited to meet with them to discuss specific topics, what I found is that I walked away with valuable knowledge from the conversations. More, I am sure, than they learned from me.

Another old coach of mine, Noddy Holder, used to say: “Whenever I take a session, I start by asking myself ‘what can I learn from this hour?’”

Most coaches ask, what can I teach this lesson, but he would ask, what can I learn. I found this to be a great method for coaching, because unlike the university professor in Japan, I want to keep my mind open to the possibility of learning something new.

The man who had the greatest overall influence on my cricket career, the late, great Rod Marsh, said to me as a young man: “You listen to too many people. Stick to what you know works, and don’t be distracted by so many opinions.”

There are few things I disagreed on with my influential mentor. I understood what he was saying to me as a young cricketer, but I know now, that I am glad I listened and talked to so many people, because that is my way of learning.

Sifting the information is the great art, not getting it.

I will never discount the power of experience and knowledge; but you can’t have this without learning it from somewhere, and that is where I have found the novice mindset to have been valuable in my journey so far.

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