Organizational learning refers to an organization’s ability to improve itself by gaining experiences, transforming those experiences into knowledge, and transferring back the knowledges to itself (Valamis 2019). On the other hand, a learning organization is an organization which is highly skilled in creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at adopting itself to apply the newly gained knowledge. To facilitate learning, organizations must provide three key elements – a supportive learning environment, a concrete learning processes and practices, and a leadership that enforces learning (Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino 2008). This article will focus on the leadership element and how leaders influence organizational learning.
Leaders are in a crucial position in driving organizational learning because of the nature of their position, legitimate authority, and decision-making powers. Due to these factors, it is imperative for a leader to have the right attributes and a transformational leadership style is considered to be an important ingredient (Rijal 2016). Transformational leaders provide motivation and inspiration through open and clear communication, promoting experimentation, and driving change which then results in new insights and learnings for the organization (Mutahar, Rasli, and Al-Ghazali 2015).
Example: Elon Musk: Tesla and SpaceX
Elon Musk’s leadership style can be categorized as transformational (Boogaard n.d). His two companies, Tesla and SpaceX at the forefront of technological evolution in electric automobile and space exploration respectively. And Elon Musk is at the helm of both companies, providing critical leadership figure. With his personality, vision, and focus, both companies remain competitive and successful despite the massive challenges they faced. He work ethics permeate into his subordinates, which eventually translates into organizational success.
Elon Musk is known for tacking global problems through his companies, such as in transportation (Tesla, Boring Company), space exploration (SpaceX), financial industry (PayPal), energy (Solar City), health (Neuralink) and artificial intelligence (OpenAI) among others. These are in addition to internal problems his organizations face. Whenever there is one, Elon has been known to be always present right there and then (Marsh 2019). During the troubled Tesla Model 3 production ramp-up in 2018, Elon Musk was said to have slept in the Tesla factory as “he wanted to suffer more than any other employee during the production hell” (Matousek 2018). His leadership and work ethic is what inspires the rest of his employees to push through challenges.
When Elon was a young boy, he was reading two books a day, and his success can somewhat be attributed for his fervour and hunger for new learnings. He is known for quizzing the engineers for hours just to absorb their knowledge. One of the SpaceX aerospace consultant, Jim Cantrell told Business Insider that Elon Musk literally taught himself rocket science through textbooks and conversations with aerospace expects (Feloni 2014). His exploits at SpaceX also demonstrated his ability to continually adapt and apply new learnings. The first three launches of SpaceX failed, and Elon took that as an opportunity for learning and to innovate. With the company’s mission to “send people to Mars by 2024”, SpaceX is continually trying, failing, and learning, and trying again, incorporating new insight and experiences.
Elon is considered to be a “T-shaped” leader, where he has an in-depth knowledge in one field (in this case, business) and substantial amount in other, sometimes non-related disciplines. This enabled him to tackle problems in one area using his expertise, but also apply different, creative, and innovative approaches using knowledge from other fields (Silvestre 2018). Elon Musk also acknowledge that accepting feedback is a another way to improve. He usually invites people to provide him some feedback, and encourages his team to do the same (Marsh 2019).
In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, organizations’ survival largely depends on how well they can adapt to change which stems from how well they can learn, and incorporate the new knowledge onto their business. Corporate leadership clearly influences the organizations’ attitude towards learning, as demonstrated by Elon Musk. By being a role model and building the same learning culture in his companies, the employees are continually learning, improving, and honing their skills which ultimately translates into competitive edge and innovation.
Personally, I believe that it is no longer enough to be an expert in “just” one area if we are to survive in the current environment. We all need to develop “T-shape” skills where we have our core expertise but also have ample knowledge in other areas, a mixed breed of expert and generalist. For example, IT people are no longer expected to just tinker with their IT equipment and remain business-as-usual day-in and day-out, they are now expected to contribute to strategic business objectives, which may involve skills in accounting and finance, operations, project management, sales and marketing, and etc. Look at some of famous business leaders of today: Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg – they are all both technical and business savvy.
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