Terms “leader” and “learner” call up images in our heads that shows the strong, confident, well-dressed expert at the head of the room brimming with wisdom being shared with a room full of unassuming, bright, eager, upturned faces anticipating the fulfillment of new insight and motivation in hopes that they, too, might fill the shoes of an admired captain.

As vivid as that image is, it is entirely inaccurate. We are not students of our craft or education and then one day we’re imbued with characteristics of leadership. Instead, we are leaders because we are willing to experiment with our knowledge, because we’re willing to challenge our assumptions and beliefs and because, most importantly, we are willing to get it wrong sometimes.

There’s a great video going around that you can find if you search for “Michael Buble – sings with a fan.” If you haven’t seen it already and you don’t want to take 3m to watch it the basics are that a lady interrupts Buble’s monologue to ask if her son can sing with him on stage. He allows for it and the results are beautiful.

This moment exemplifies the importance of presence and vulnerability. It illustrates exactly how critical these two characteristics are to successful leadership and meaningful learning.

In a situation like this we have an unwritten agreement that this is the leader’s time to offer his gift to the people in the room who are simply there to appreciate the gift and respect the man.

As a leader Michael could have chosen the conventional belief that a leader owns the moment:

  • his stage,
  • his concert,
  • his audience,
  • his time.

Fans would’ve accepted that notion. The mom and the son would’ve gone home feeling “well, we tried” and nothing would’ve changed for anyone.

Instead, Michael chose a different response. Rather than ignore her, get mad or feel intruded upon he released his expected outcome (not being interrupted) and allowed for the moment to unfold (engage in conversation).

In other words, because he wasn’t caught up in the “should be” idea of his power role he could just be totally present, get curious and be playful in the moment.

As a learner, this kid could’ve chosen the conventional belief that it’s his job to respect the leader by listening and observing and maybe take steps to try to replicate the success of the leader at some point in the future.

Instead he let go of his expectation that his mom would mind her own business, he let go of the fear that he’d let down the audience or Buble himself. He swallowed his pride and nerves and he chose to make himself vulnerable.

In other words, he let go of what he thought “should” happen and engaged fully in the opportunity that his mother and Michael created for him. 

The result was amazing:

  • Even though the leader seemingly relinquished his power he actually gained more admiration and respect from him fans.
  • Even though the learner risked significant loss, he gained a real test of his mettle in a way that simply listening and observing would not have been able to offer him.

We can turn the whole scenario upside down by switching roles, the kid as the leader and Michael as the learner, do the same analysis and it’s even more profound.

We’ve been taught to believe that good leadership looks a certain way: being in control, sticking to the plan, and wielding authority.

The truth is a real leader knows the idea of “control” is fiction, that anything can happen in any given moment, that the plan is a great starting point but with new opportunities and fresh information the best plan is the plan that can adapt easily. A true leader isn’t interested in always being right she’s interested in collaboration and cooperation as a part of a team.

We’ve been taught to believe that a good learner looks a certain way: subservience, emulation and deference.

The truth is a real learner knows that only knowledge can be attained through observation but wisdom and growth come through experience and often those experiences are uncomfortable or run the risk of making others unhappy.

The ability to be present means losing the emotional attachment to one “right” outcome.
The ability to be vulnerable means weighing the benefit of having deeper experiential wisdom against the detriment of potential negative feedback. 

When you integrate these two practices, presence and vulnerability, in your life you make room for the kind of experiences that help you emerge as both respected leader and active learner simply because you’re able to meet each person and every moment right where they are. Presence and vulnerability are the difference between playing the role of leader/earner and simply being a leader/learner.

Can you think of a time that you were more effective as a leader when you surrendered your agenda and could be present to the moment? Did that change the way you lead or learn?