Learning to Lead

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The first time I got fired, I wrote it off to a “personality conflict” and kept moving. I was sure that it wasn’t my fault or my problem.

The second time I got fired, I was really surprised. I was on what we called “the fast track” back in the day. I had several development assignments, made my numbers, and impressed people. And got fired.

I did the usual stuff. I shook my fist at the sky. I blamed just about everyone else. I vowed revenge in some uncertain form. Then my mother set me straight.

We were living on opposite coasts then, and we had a check-in call every week. I was going on about how awful getting fired was when my mother asked her mom question: “What are you learning from this?”

The truth is that right up until that moment I wasn’t learning anything. I was having my own little pity party and wallowing in my hurt and sure that I had been treated unjustly. Mom started asking questions. Pretty soon, it was clear that I had had a hand in my own demise.

It probably took me two months to learn the important lessons from that particular event. It was hard and it hurt. I vowed I’d never do dumb things like that ever again. So, when I was fired the next time, I was really, really surprised.

I’d been on the job for four years and improved every single metric. The organization was a much better place because of my work, but I screwed up the human relations part and I got fired. Bang. Done. Game over.

That time I knew that I needed to learn from the experience. I think I did. But I wasn’t done learning. No leader is ever done learning.

There’s Only One Way to Learn to Lead

Leadership isn’t like history or physics. You don’t learn it from books. You learn to lead by leading. You do things, you try things, and some of them work and some of them don’t. That’s experience, and it’s a start, but experience alone won’t make you a better leader.

Your Experience Is Only Part of The Puzzle

“We do not learn from experience. We learn by reflecting on experience.” John Dewey is usually credited with that insight. But if you only reflect on your own experience, it will take much longer to get good and you’ll have a lot more pain along the way. That’s where reading comes into play. Reading can give you other people’s experience without the pain. You’ll have more to reflect on.

Reflection helps, but you need something more. Reflection, alone, doesn’t get you anywhere, no matter how much experience you’re thinking about and no matter how many great insights you get. You must take what you’ve learned and turn it into action.

Leadership Is a Learning Discipline

If you want to grow and develop as a leader, you must take the lessons of your experience and all the other experience you can learn about and turn them into action. You’ll find that will happen in two ways.

You’ll learn some from the small mistakes and little improvements that you make every day. You’ll set some targets for improvement and you’ll get better. You’ll feel good.

You’ll also learn from what Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas called “crucibles.” Here’s how Thomas described them in his book, Crucibles of Leadership.

“A crucible is not the same as a life stage or transition, like moving from adolescence to adulthood or from midlife to retirement. Life stages can be stressful, even tumultuous; but, unlike crucibles, they tend to be gradual, reasonably predictable, and patterned. Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.”

Crucibles are the big tests that also present the opportunity for great learning. For many leaders, the change from individual contributor to a person responsible for the performance and care of a group is a crucible. It’s difficult and stretching and an opportunity for incredible growth.

A Leader’s Learning Is Never Done

If you aspire to leadership or if you aspire to be a better leader, think of it as a lifelong learning and trying experience. It will be exciting. It will be demanding. It will be rewarding. But it will also be frustrating and there will be times when you will be hurt. That’s what happens. You will not become a great leader automatically, easily, or without pain. You have to do the work to learn and develop and grow. It’s the only way.

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