Goodness Report

It Took Yoda a Few Words to Teach One of the Greatest Leadership Lessons You Will Ever Hear

December 1, 2022

By Marcel Schwantes, Inc.

As children, we were taught many things that formed our belief system growing up. We were told what we could and could not do, what friends we were allowed to play with, and which we were to avoid for our “safety.”

As working professionals and business leaders, for the most part, that belief system still keeps us safe and teaches us good boundaries, but it may limit us from possibilities that will impede our success.

Here’s what I’m getting at. The real enemy that limits us is entrenched between our ears. It’s the self-defeating thoughts and beliefs that hold us hostage and keep us from growing.

Not challenging our existing worldview and why we believe what we believe will only limit our own potential; it will keep us from exploring answers to challenging questions and cultivating new beliefs with unabated curiosity.

One way to challenge our worldviews and beliefs is to test them. By not testing your belief system, it will own you and become your ruler because you never questioned it.

This brings me to a classic movie reference spoken by an iconic Star Wars character.

‘Unlearn what you have learned’

In the movie The Empire Strikes Back, the Jedi Master Yoda challenges Luke Skywalker to shift his mindset from self-limiting thoughts to one of possibilities. Yoda said:

You must unlearn what you have learned.

This quote has triggered and provoked people’s thinking for decades.

Think about what it means for your own life and leadership. There are many things that we must unlearn first — things we perceive to be true and assumptions we make because of our belief system — that limit us.

We’ve attained a great deal of information and knowledge — whether it be from school, work, life experience, the “school of hard knocks,” or through modeling behavior — that was in fact true years or decades past. But the world has evolved, we are in a new social and technological era, yet many of us have not discarded old information and knowledge still embedded in our current beliefs.

Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, said this over 2,500 years ago:

To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.

What Tzu is getting at is for us to remove anything excessive, confusing, counter-productive, or hard to use or manage. It’s having the discipline to stop yourself from adding the things that you should be subtracting instead.

This brings me to the art and practice of leadership. One of the downfalls of being a leader — shaping company culture, building a high-performing organization, and selecting future leaders for succession planning — is that we don’t have a clear and compelling picture of true leadership across the board to model for generations to come. In today’s business climate, we have to challenge our current worldview of who a leader is and what a leader does, day in and day out.

One common denominator of leadership is still a foreign concept for many: every interaction you’re in should foster productive relationships that lead to results.

To illustrate, driving people like cattle at the expense of fostering relationships will fail at winning people’s hearts and minds to produce great things together. On the flip side, focusing only on relationships without achieving results will feel like a pool party but nothing gets done. You need both. Arriving at this place means unlearning and subtracting a few things here, and learning and adding a few things there.

Accepting change

As leaders, we must be willing and motivated to change and grow. I hate to get soft for a minute, but this is where the heart matters. Your intentions to become a great leader someday have to be heart-based. In other words, learning and adding the habits of connecting to the hearts of your people to gain their trust. Then, it’s subtracting and unlearning the habits that lend to fear, incivility, and toxicity, and which keep human beings from taking risks, making mistakes, having a voice, and creating value.

As you grow and change as a leader, you have to be willing to go down deep to explore old habits and behaviors below the surface that need to be identified and changed. In other words, unlearning and subtracting old behaviors and learning and adding new habits.