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How to Use Experience to Fuel Leadership Development

How to Use Experience to Fuel Leadership Development

The Benefits of Leadership Experience & How It Drives Development

As we’ve stated many times before, leaders are made, not born. And they’re made over many years, shaped by professional and personal experiences.

Most learning and development actually comes from on-the-job experience.

But the process of leadership development isn’t passive. It’s more than just a matter of letting life experience wash over you. The best leaders learn from their experiences in a thoughtful, strategic manner. They’re constantly asking themselves, “What can I learn from this failure?” or “How can I use this success to grow and develop?”

As noted in our book, Lead 4 Success: Learn the Essentials of True Leadership, understanding how experience shapes leaders is the first step to making the most of it in your career.

Start with these 3 fundamental truths about leadership experience:

  1. Experience matters, because leaders are made, not born. The most valuable experiences push you out of your comfort zone, stretch your skills, and challenge your abilities. Though nobody wants to spend their entire career in a constant state of discomfort, the most worthwhile leadership development usually comes with a dose of discomfort. Making worthwhile changes is rarely easy, and requires intentional effort.
  2. Experience is variable, and not all experiences are the same. Different people, of course, have different experiences. And different experiences teach different things. The quality, quantity, and diversity of your experiences are important. Also, remember that experience goes beyond what’s on your résumé. Family experiences, volunteer roles, hardships and your personal life, and other non-work experiences can also strengthen your leadership skills.
  3. Experience is the past, present, and future at once. An experience is not a one-time phenomenon. You can relive past experiences, reflect on them, and discover new insights. Your past experiences can help you navigate your present experiences, and your current experiences may prompt you to re-examine past experiences for new lessons. Future experiences don’t merely happen to you. You can shape them, consciously seeking out opportunities to grow as a leader.

So how do you translate these 3 truths into actionable day-to-day activities?

Focus on developing the core leadership skills needed in every role and career, which are developed primarily through experience and, in turn, help you gain the most from your experiences. These 4 skills are:

  • Self-awareness, which includes leadership wisdom, leadership reputation, leadership identity, and leadership brand.
  • Learning agility, which includes seeking, sense-making, internalizing, and applying.
  • Communication, which includes active listening, gathering feedback, delivering feedback, and communicating your vision.
  • Influence, which includes the distinct skills of political savvy, self-promotion, building and maintaining trust, and leveraging networks.

Why these 4 skills? First, there’s a lot of research that finds these 4 skills are closely linked to effective leadership — not only for people at the peak of their careers, but for leaders of any age. (That’s also why they’re the focus in our fundamental leadership skills course, Lead 4 Success®.)

Though many people have specific strengths in 1 or 2 of these skills, few of us are highly proficient in all 4. Fortunately, life will almost certainly provide you opportunities to develop these skills further. And your organization may even help you make a focused effort to grow through understanding the benefits of your leadership experiences.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

If you’re ready to upskill your team in the 4 core leadership skills, get in touch with us to discuss our fundamental leadership skills program, Lead 4 Success®.


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December 18, 2020
George Hallenbeck
About the Author(s)
George Hallenbeck
George is a Commercialization Director at CCL, where he leads an innovation platform called All-Access Leadership that empowers clients to deliver and experience CCL’s intellectual property in ways that match their needs and strategies. He holds a BA in Psychology from Colby College and a MS and PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University.

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