Developing Mastery in a Digital Age

Kenneth Mikkelsen
6 min readNov 18, 2015

As Juan Manuel Fangio exited the chicane before the blind Tabac corner in the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix, he stamped on the brake. It was a counterintuitive reaction for a racing driver exiting a corner. One that likely saved his life. By slowing down he avoided ploughing into a multi-car pile-up, which was out of sight. In racing folklore, Fangio’s evasive action is considered a miracle. But why did he slow down?

The day before the race, Fangio had seen a photograph of a similar accident in 1936. As he approached Tabac, he noticed something different about the crowd — an unusual color. Fangio realized that, instead of seeing their faces, he was seeing the backs of their heads. He was leading the race, but they were not watching him. Something further down the road had to be attracting their attention. That made him recall the photograph.

Like Fangio, leaders must have their eyes on the future and scan the world for signals of change. Intelligence about the future is a key resource for building robust strategic trajectories for companies. We live in a world that increasingly requires what psychologist Howard Gardner calls searchlight intelligence. That is, the ability to connect the dots between people and ideas, where others see no possible connection. An informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in actualizing emerging futures.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” Peter Drucker advised. But how can business leaders make meaning of a playing field that is constantly changing shape? Is it possible to create the future without having an updated navigation system to live, learn and lead in a digital age?

To find their way in societal shifts, leaders cannot rely on old maps to guide them. Reinvention and relevance in the 21stcentury instead draws on our ability to adjust our way of thinking, learning, doing and being. In 1946, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares co-authored On Exactitude in Science. This is a story of an empire where cartographers draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the whole territory, eventually leading to the downfall of the empire. It highlights how people confuse perception with reality.

Our fixation on managing complexity often has unintentional consequences. Rather than clinging on to habitual scientific-management thinking, leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming. This is a perpetual Beta mode, where balance and progression is created through motion. Simone de Beauvoir touched on this in her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, when she wrote: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.”

The best leaders are the best learners

Leaders that stay on top of society’s changes do so by being receptive and able to learn. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organizations. It is rarely recognized, but the core activity in any change or transformation process, personal or organizational, is learning.

As we attempt to transition into a networked creative economy, we need leaders who promote learning and who master fast, relevant and autonomous learning themselves. There is no other way to address the wicked problems facing us. If work is learning and learning is the work, then leadership should be all about enabling learning. In a recent Deloitte study, Global Human Capital Trends 2015, 85 percent of the respondents cited learning as being either important or very important. Yet, more companies than ever report they are unprepared to address this challenge.

John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davidson have described the shift toward a massive transformation from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning. The key is to find ways to connect and participate in knowledge flows that challenge our thinking and allow us to discover new ways of connecting, collaborating and getting work done faster, smarter and better.

Personal Knowledge Mastery

Sustainable competitive advantage depends on having people that know how to build relationships, seek information, make sense of observations and share ideas through an intelligent use of new technologies. Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) is a lifelong learning strategy that can help people do just that. It is a method for individuals to take control of their professional development through a continuous process of seeking, sensing-making and sharing.

Seek is about finding things out and keeping up to date. In a world overflowing with information, we need smart filters to sort out the valuable information. It requires that we regularly evaluate and adjust the information sources that we base our thinking and decision making on. What matters today is being connected to a wise network of trusted individuals who can help us filter useful information, expose blind spots and open our eyes.

Sense is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we learn. It is a process based on critical thinking where we weave together our thoughts, experiences, impressions and feelings to make meaning of them. By writing a blog post, a tweet or noting ideas down, we contextualize and reinforce our learning.

Share includes exchanging resources, ideas and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues. Sharing is a contributing process where we pass our knowledge forward, work alongside others, go through iterations and collectively learn from important insights and reflections. In social networks the sharing part is where we build respect and trust by being relevant.

There is a wide range of digital tools out there for each of the PKM activities that can be fitted into a busy schedule and help people become self-directed, autonomous learners. Which tools to use depends largely on the context and personal preferences. Tools are important, but mastery in a digital age is only achieved if you know how to establish trust, respect and relevance in human networks.

By working strategically with PKM, everyone in an organization can become part of a sensing organism, listening at different frequencies, scanning the horizon, recognizing patterns and making better decisions on an informed basis. Just as Juan Manuel Fangio did it in the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix.


This article was first published on Drucker Society Europe’s blog as part of a series leading up to the Global Drucker Forum 2015.

The article was also published on Harvard Business Review in an edited version here: The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners.

Here is Tanmay Vora’s (@tnvora) synthesised illustration of the HBR article:

About the authors:

Kenneth Mikkelsen is a leadership advisor, learning designer, speaker and writer. He is Co-founder of FutureShifts and currently writing a book, The Neo-Generalist, about the way generalists shape our world with Richard Martin. Follow him on Twitter @LeadershipABC.

Harold Jarche is an international consultant and speaker, helping people and businesses adapt to the network era. Harold provides pragmatic guidance on connected leadership, social learning, personal knowledge mastery, and workplace collaboration. Follow him on Twitter @hjarche.

Kenneth Mikkelsen

Adviser | Educator | Writer | Speaker | Thinker