Leadership: 3 Habits to Help You Learn from Experience

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Experience is the best teacher, but it’s almost a secret. Leadership experts hardly ever mention it. Learning from experience doesn’t get much love, but it may be the most powerful technique you can master.

You learn important lessons faster and better when you learn from experience.  Here are three habits you can develop to get the most from your experience.

Develop the Capture Habit

Every day, you have experience that has something to teach you. Most of the time, you won’t be able to learn the lesson right then. That’s why you need to capture important moments.

You won’t have time to write out a full account of what happened. So, develop a habit of capturing the essence of incidents that might be important. Just make notes on a notecard or a digital recorder or your smart phone. A few keywords can capture the facts and the emotions.

Many of the incidents you capture will be unimportant. That’s okay. But you can’t mine an incident for learning if you don’t remember it. Capturing the details and the emotions helps you remember. That sets you up for the next habit.

Develop the Habit of Reflection

Effective leaders master the habit of reflecting on their experience. That’s where they learn the lessons of experience.

Review your notes from the day. Throw some of them out. Think about the ones you have left. Capture your thoughts in writing.

I use a journal, but many effective leaders use other things. They make notes on computer. They write on scraps of paper. The medium isn’t important. The writing is.

Writing forces you to be precise about what happened and how it affected you. Writing also gives you a record you can review later.

Learning is important, but it’s not enough. Leadership is a doing discipline. You must turn your learning and insights into action.

Develop the Habit of Trying

When you reflect on your experience, you’ll discover things you want to do more of. Those are things you did well, sometimes surprisingly well. You’ll also identify things you want to do differently.

Figure out how your behavior should change. When you want to change something you do every day, try the new behavior tomorrow. If the situation only happens sometimes, develop a simple if/then plan. “If x happens, then I will do y.”

What do you want to do more of? When you identify something that’s worked and that you think you can do more of, keep score. Note the number of times you do it each day or each week.

Bottom Line

Experience is the best teacher. Learn how to get the most from it.


Robert Thomas excellent book, Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader, is the only book I know of about learning from experience for business leaders.

The best time to learn how to learn from experience is early in your career. That’s why I devote three chapters to it in my ebook, Now You’re the Boss: Making the Most of the Most Important Transition in Business

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