All the Best Leaders Are Great Learners

"What do all of the most successful leaders of our day have in common, and how can I follow in their footsteps?"

This is a question many executives and entrepreneurs ask themselves. While many expect the answer to be complicated, looking for big gestures to match major productivity – like organizational culture overhauls or fundamental changes to the hiring process – it actually couldn't be more simple.

From Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Cuban, the most successful leaders in business have made learning a critical priority in their everyday lives.

For example, Mark Cuban reads more than three hours a day. For many years, Bill Gates went into seclusion for annual "Think Weeks." Family, friends, and Microsoft team members were banned from these retreats. Mark Zuckerberg vowed to read a book every two weeks in 2015. Warren Buffet's dedication to continuous learning has been noted numerous times. These are real commitments to learning, folks – ones you don't fake, ones from which you draw regular motivation, inspiration, and education.

To be a truly successful leader, you also have to be a reader. At Petra Coach, we're constantly sharing this lesson with the executives with whom we work.

Tom Bemiller, founder and president of The Aureus Group, one of Petra Coach's member companies, has adopted a "learning first" mantra in his life and business. To help coach other leaders on the importance of learning, I asked Bemiller to describe exactly what this mantra means and the benefits he's experienced from it.

In our conversation below, you'll find valuable tips from someone who is achieving greater success as a result of their commitment to learning:

JT Terrell: Tom, can you describe your learning schedule and how it works?

Tom Bemiller: In terms of my schedule, I set aside one day per week for reading and thinking. The day is blocked off on my calendar, and it's the same day each week. I'll generally read something related to an issue I'm processing or a project on which I'm working inside the business, and then I'll spend time thinking and brainstorming about how to apply the concepts. I've made big progress in very little time on some very important projects since making [learning] a priority in my schedule.

As far as a specific routine, I spend 10 minutes each morning practicing gratitude, 10 minutes reading, 10 minutes journaling, and 10 minutes setting my priorities for the day. This is the first thing I do in the morning, and it gives me an opportunity to quiet my mind, gather new information and knowledge, establish a positive attitude for the day, and focus on what needs to happen that day in order to move me toward the completion of my goals. Since starting the ritual, I've become more efficient and effective in my work. I'm also more calm and less stressed, and I am spending more time with my family.

JTT: What professional learning opportunities do you take advantage of?

TB: I attend three or four conferences or learning programs per year, where I pick up an enormous amount of knowledge in concentrated fashion.

I am also a member of Vistage CEO Network. As a member, I spend one day per month with 15 other CEOs learning from subject matter experts, as well as each other. We discuss issues, problems, challenges, and opportunities in our businesses, as well as in our personal lives, and we share ideas and experiences to learn from one another.

JTT: What lessons have you taken away from the discipline of adhering to a schedule?

TB: I'll be honest: I don't think I could survive without my calendar. Not only does it consist of a series of recurring events that dictate my activity all day every day, but it also helps me prioritize learning.

Being extremely disciplined with my schedule has also allowed me to get more work done in less time, naturally creating time for me to spend working on the business. Additionally, the routine of repeating events – e.g., always going to the office on Monday or always reading at the library on Thursday – allows me to prepare better and focus more on the specific task or meeting at hand.

JTT: How do you feel about the practice of a routine, and what do you think others can gain from creating their own routines?

TB: For me, routine is absolutely necessary. It helps me to be focused, prepared, and effective throughout the week. By scheduling all of my time ahead of time, I can fine-tune a routine that works for me, allowing me to be the best I can be as a father, a husband, and a CEO.

It is an important point that, especially for me, creating that routine sets you free from the little fires that we feel we must put out every minute of every day. If you're a leader who wants to set a strict routine for learning, I encourage you to tell the most important people in your life why [learning] is so important. They can also help keep you accountable.

JTT: How hard has it been to keep your schedule up?

TB: I've certainly gotten better over time, but it was difficult at first. For me, it basically comes down to self-discipline in prioritizing the important stuff over the urgent stuff. Like anything, progress didn't happen overnight; it was a series of small improvements over time that eventually added up. It just requires a commitment to self-improvement.

JT Terrell is a speaker and accountability coach for Petra Coach.