Understanding the importance of unlearning

In a speech given in Dallas in 1963, John F. Kennedy declared that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”. The words of the US president live on to serve as a reminder of the need for leaders to be constantly learning and evolving. 

JFK was correct but it is also important for leaders to understand the process of “unlearning”. 

Recognizing that your way of doing things no longer applies to your current position will help bring in the changes. Leaders learn on the go, and their experiences help shape how they manage. 

Letting go of how you used to do things may seem difficult but accepting this with a positive mindset rather than a sense of defeat will be your first step in unlearning.

Without a doubt unlearning is a real challenge; much of what we have learned we have done so unconsciously (by forming habits) and we are usually unaware of the mental models and behavioural patterns that we have created for ourselves. They become our lifeblood; our default mode of functioning and we are often unaware they even exist.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, the habit loop is a neurological pattern that governs any habit. It consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these components can help in understanding how to change bad habits or form good ones. 

The habit loop begins with a trigger that transfers the brain into a mode that automatically determines which habit to use. The heart of the habit is a mental, emotional, or physical routine. Then there is a reward; this helps the brain determine if a particular loop is worth remembering for the future. According to Duhigg, craving drives all habits and is essential in starting a new habit or reshaping an old one. 

Duhigg describes how Procter and Gamble (P&G) used research on the habit loop and its connection to cravings to develop the market for Febreze, a product that eliminates bad smells. The product, initially marketed to get rid of unpleasant smells, sold poorly until P&G realised people become accustomed to smells in their own homes, and stopped noticing them even when they are overpowering. The marketing then switched to linking it to pleasant smells and good cleaning habits instead, which resulted in a massive increase in sales. 

Habit change helps stop addictive habits and replace them with new ones. It recognises that if you keep the initial cue, replace the routine, and keep the reward, change will eventually occur. 

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits says: “Over the long run…the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

There are many leaders doing an incredible job of promoting unlearning and changing habits. They are throwing out long-standing fables that lead to stagnation. A culture that challenges perspectives is healthy for everyone. 

It’s time to square up to age-old lessons and open the mind to new ways of thinking.

Speak to the team to discuss how we could help the leaders in your organisation.