Thoughts on Leadership: Continuous Learning

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me first working and planning from my office in Northern California and next I flew to Austin to meet with our HomeServices of America, Inc. technical support team, who interact with customers, dig into complex issues and analyze the efficacy of technical solutions. To succeed at their roles, these technology professionals must keep score on the progress of their goals and exist in a state of continuous learning, educating themselves on the rapid change of industry innovations and forever widening their knowledge about how systems and processes should work.

The idea of continuous learning is one I’ve always placed at the forefront of my leadership philosophy. Remember, new eyes see old things in new ways. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, authors Kenneth Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche explain: “Leaders must scan the world for signals of change and be able to react instantaneously … an informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in emerging futures.”

This capacity is what psychologist Howard Gardner labels “searchlight intelligence,” or the “ability to connect the dots between people and ideas, where others see no possible connection.”

The logical application of the searchlight intelligence concept is, of course, dinosaurs. (You weren’t expecting that Mesozoic twist, were you?) As it happens, this week I listened to “A Grown-Up Guide to Dinosaurs,” narrated by English evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod.

To forward-thinking business minds, it may seem counterintuitive to study creatures that existed about 245 to 66 million years ago, but in the name of continuous learning, it’s a fascinating topic to explore.

As a young boy watching The Flintstones, I fell in love with dinosaurs. At the time, all I knew was that they were once here, and they had somehow disappeared. I didn’t know how or why, and because I wasn’t yet in a mindset of continuous learning, I watched The Flintstones and allowed the questions to go unanswered.

Finally, through listening to “The Grown-up Guide to Dinosaurs,” I have a much better sense about the questions left lingering in my youth.

In the early 1980s, Walter Alvarez, a professor in the Earth and Planetary Science department at the University of California, Berkeley, pieced together the ever-persistent puzzle as to why dinosaurs were thriving then suddenly were no more. It all turns on a thin, clay layer found anywhere around the globe. The layer doesn’t have the same chemistry as the rocks at the surface of Earth and its composition is distinctly extraterrestrial, particularly rich in iridium like you’d find if you studied an asteroid or a comet. He also discovered tiny pieces of quartz that had strange deformations in their crystal lattice, which happens to minerals when high-pressure shockwaves pass through. You usually find these shocked minerals at nuclear test sites or asteroid impact sites.

And with that we now know the story. An asteroid about 10 kilometers wide that had been “hanging around” our solar system for a billion years smacked into Earth 66 million years ago, crashing into the Yucatan Peninsula, which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. The asteroid traveled at an astonishing 90,000 km. per hour, and as Dr. Jessica Whiteside, associate professor at the University of Southampton explained, it created a hole the size of 20 Londons or 33 Manhattans. “It was the same force as more than 10 billion of the nuclear bombs that completely destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima during WWII,” she said in “The Grown-up Guide to Dinosaurs.”

In the first minute after the asteroid hit, it pushed the Earth’s surface down about 30 km. Rocks at the surface of the Earth instantaneously liquified and melted. These vaporized rocks formed a huge mushroom cloud—a “plume”—of dust several hundred kilometers high and wide. The plume emitted intense thermal radiation and light, setting fire to everything in its path. Additional rocks from the asteroid were thrown into the atmosphere, causing large particles to rain on the land.

Meanwhile, the plume made its way all around the world in just a few hours, blocking light from the sun for years. (It’s estimated about 20% of normal sunlight passed through to Earth during this time, creating massive extinctions of plants and the animals that survived on them to eat and the animals that survived on those animals to eat, and on and on.) The impact also caused a massive 10-11 magnitude earthquake. When put together with the other catastrophic events this meant, as Garrod explained: “The time of the dinosaurs was over not with a whimper but with a bang.”

Here’s one more thing I learned from the fascinating audiobook: Even if this asteroid hadn’t hit, non-avian dinosaurs most likely wouldn’t be around today. (A side note: The 10,000 species of birds currently in existence are most certainly considered by scientists to be dinosaurs, so the asteroid did not cause the extinction of avian dinosaurs, just the non-avian dinosaurs we traditionally think of when we imagine the toothy, scaly gargantuan creatures that once roamed the Earth.)

Professor Mike Benton of the University of Bristol conducted a computational study and found that at some point in the Late Cretaceous period, dinosaurs were “running out of steam.” Temperatures around the world were beginning to decline, flowering plants were diversifying, the birds and mammals that are part of our modern ecosystem were starting to appear.

“Dinosaurs were not part of the modern ecosystem,” Benton explains. “[They] weren’t eating the early roses and magnolias and [were] looking for low-energy conifers. You could make an argument to say the world was changing under their feet.” In other words, asteroid or not, the dinosaurs weren’t evolving fast enough to keep pace with the transforming world around them.

So, what’s the message? Let’s bring it all back to the ideas of leadership and change. As that earlier-referenced Harvard Business Review article stated, “The best leaders are the best learners.” It’s almost impossible to manage the complexities of an ever-fluctuating business through the lens of fixed, static information. Leaders should exist in a state of perpetual “becoming,” receptive to new ideas and new knowledge that can originate from practically anywhere. It might not seem applicable to study the flourish and demise of the dinosaurs, except maybe it’s one of the most applicable topics we can learn. Thwarted by an inability to change, dinosaurs eventually ceased to exist, a lesson we should take to heart as we continue to learn and grow. Knowledge isn’t one solid, creature that stomps mightily across the land with omnipotent power. Knowledge ebbs and flows like the earth beneath our feet and the sooner we embrace that evolution, the sooner we’ll discover new ways to connect, collaborate and prosper.

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