Leadership Comes From Experience

NOT from Exposure!


As a leader, I am always seeking experiences that will make me a better leader. As a “follower”, I crave experienced and proven leaders. What we need is something that prepares men and women to actually lead and not just to think about or read about leadership.

Young developing leaders need opportunities to actively and personally explore and/or experience what they should have already learned in an academic setting or observed in a practical setting. These opportunities should be “performance practicums” and represent a safe environment for young leaders to grow and gain the practical experience that we as followers desperately want them to have. How else do we develop and grow the best young leaders in our organizations?

A Perspective on Experience

Frequent readers of this blog will know how much I love a great quote. And, it is said that John F. Kennedy produced a notable one as he was battling perceptions that he had a marked deficit of leadership in his 1960 presidential campaign. He is quoted as saying:

“Experience is like tail lights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going”.

That is a great quote, isn’t it? And it is highly inspirational. Especially to the young and to the up and coming.

Another Perspective on Experience

Let’s take another look from a different perspective at President Kennedy’s quote and the nautical analogy that he employed. What if “where we should be going” is through very dangerous waters with rocks and shoals that could damage or sink the ship? What if you are a passenger on that ship? How important is experience now?

Here is the problem. We have placed far too much emphasis on exposure versus experience. Many of the organizations that call me to consult and to troubleshoot their situations have several things in common. One of them is a lack of real and relevant experience by the top leader or leaders. Many times they have been around real leaders. In other words, they have been “exposed” to real leadership. They just haven’t experienced it sufficiently themselves.

So What Do We Do?

We must develop leaders and give them ample opportunities to learn to lead and to gain practical experiences that will give them confidence and will allow them to exude confidence that will give their followers confidence as well.

Consider the Leader’s Personality — Each leader has a unique personality and style of learning. We must provide development opportunities to gain experience that will fit within their personality. Leadership skills are somewhat universal. But individual leaders are not interchangeable. So, develop the leader within the bounds of his or her personality.

Consider the Development Program — Is there a formal development program? Or are these underdeveloped leaders relying on senior leaders? Are they responsible for finding qualified mentors? Both are effective. Just provide one or the other to those leaders to develop and gain the experience they need.

Consider the Opportunities to Practice — Of the three considerations, this one is the crux of this article. Underdeveloped leaders remain underdeveloped if they have no opportunities to put into practice what they have learned or have observed from their mentors and their environment.

One Final Word

Leadership “potential” is great. And I want my leaders to have the “aptitude” for leadership. But many of us find ourselves in organizations where potential alone is not enough. We need proven leaders with a track record of leadership. Perhaps then, it is up to you and to me to help provide those opportunities to practice what they have learned in a safe and supportive environment.

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Leader -|- Follower -|- Guide

I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.