Donna Rae Smith

Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

What makes an exceptional leader? Great leaders do more than direct the collective action of their employees — they inspire and create conditions for them to excel. They are attuned to the needs and wants of others and continuously commit themselves to helping others excel. Even more, a great leader accepts that their effectiveness requires continuous learning. They challenge themselves to intentionally change and personally manage that change through a self-directed process of staying open to learning. Great leaders are great learners.

“As for me, all I know is that I know nothing,” reads the sign above Steven’s office door. Steven, a longtime Bright Side client and the CEO of a global software development business, is an ideal example of a lifetime learner and, as a result, a great leader. He posted Socrates’ words above his door as both a personal reminder of the importance of continuous learning but also to inspire those who enter his office to do so with a genuine openness to learning. And it works. Steven has built one impressive company after another, and he’s done it by modeling an authentic desire to learn and continually develop himself as a leader.

We work with leaders around the world, teaching them a model of personal leadership development. The leaders that use the model most effectively are those that believe in continuous learning and accept that their effectiveness as a leader and their satisfaction as a person require regular review. They are open to change and accept that true change is only sustainable if they intentionally focus on it and work at it, practicing the release of cherished leadership habits and replacing them with new, more impactful ones. This is hard work, which is made harder because behavior change is not a linear, consistently forward-moving process. Rather it is a repetitive process of trial and error, progress coupled with setbacks. So, how do these leaders stay committed to learning and embrace the behavior changes they need to make?

  • They look for and anticipate barriers within themselves and others. Learners recognize that their openness will be regularly challenged so they prepare themselves and transcend the resistance by staying committed to unlimited thinking and possibility exploration.
  • They genuinely listen instead of prejudging ideas. Learners don’t feel the need to jump to conclusions. They pause before responding, giving themselves time to fully process what they’ve heard and even seek additional information. This ensures good decision-making.
  • They seek solutions from diverse sources. Learners look for solutions in nontraditional places. With genuine curiosity, they look for ways to apply lessons from other disciplines, industries, organizations and cultures.
  • They view experience as life’s best teacher. Great learners approach their personal and professional experiences as goldmine opportunities for learning. No experience is insignificant or meaningless. They build in reflection time and, with vigor and energy, review their role in each experience, boldly questioning how they can behave differently for a better result next time.
  • They create a learning environment for those around them. Great leaders encourage experimentation followed by thorough reflection. They embrace failure and create a culture where employees feel safe admitting and reporting mistakes. They believe the best results will come from informed trial and error.

Steven realizes his success as a leader is directly related to his effectiveness as a learner. No matter that his impressive business career has spanned decades and he’s at the helm of one of the most admired companies in the world, Steven is still learning.

Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, Smith and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to over 250 of the world’s most influential companies. Smith is a guest leadership blogger for Smart Business and the author of two leadership books, “Building Your Bright Side” and “The Power of Building your Bright Side.”  For more information, please visit or contact Smith at [email protected]