5 Leadership Lessons You Can Only Get From Experience

There’s an age old debate about whether or not leaders can be made, or if you have to be born that way.  Nevertheless, every year, countless professionals of all experience levels and all walks of life decide to invest in themselves to hopefully become the next great leader.

There are a plethora of degrees, certificates, specializations, seminars and other educational means available to learners today. Often times, they are meant to serve as the next check mark in their road to prosperity. I challenge you to ask yourself what they really mean? An advanced college degree like an MBA or a Masters in Organizational Leadership must be the answer right? If not, perhaps a certification from a prestigious institution like Wharton or Booth where you can hear others tell you about leadership alas learning all you need to know in a week or even in a few days.  At the very least a weekend seminar from Steven Covey or Tony Robbins or another renowned leadership pundit will cure any holes in your arsenal.

Of course, if the above options find themselves too intrusive, expensive, or don’t fit into the plan, there are always the self improvement books that are out there,  proclaiming the perfect blueprint for leadership prosperity.  Above mentioned authors Steven Covey and Tony Robbins. Both have written lots of great rhetoric on leadership.  Jack Welch (Former GE CEO), Steve Jobs, and Herb Kelleher (Former CEO of Southwest) all have books that tell their story (In quite a compelling fashion if I may say) of leadership and how they made their companies rise like the tide throughout times or success and riches as well as during times of bitter economic turmoil.

Having done an Executive MBA, and having attended more than just a few seminars, I can say first hand, a lot of great information can be learned through formalized study.  Pairing the formal education with a book shelf holding countless books on leadership, management, success, and other business topics, it is safe to say I have read a lot of books about the subject.  Eerily, I find many of them to be very similar, and at times they begin to almost read as one continuous novel of regurgitated facts and opinion.

So with all of the tools out there, leadership must be attainable for anyone willing to put in the work.  Read the books, go to school, perhaps land yourself a great mentor and you will be fine.  Well, I’m not here to debate where leaders actually come from, but what I do want to share today is as follows.

With all of the great programs on leadership offered in schools, written in books, and evangelized by speakers, some of my greatest leadership lessons have come from life.  Here are five lessons in leadership that I would love to share with you.

  1. Great leaders don’t always do the right thing even when people are looking: Part of being a leader is being human.  While we expect those that lead us in our day to day life (Boss, Community Leaders) as well as those on a larger scale ( Fortune CEO’s and World Leaders) we have to realize that these people suffer from the same human condition as you and I.  Mistakes will be made, by everyone, the sooner you realize that and the sooner you figure out learning from them is the key.  The better leader you will become
  2. Leadership is very hard, even if it is innate: It doesn’t matter if you have been a leader from birth or were promoted for the first time yesterday.  Leading others or leading ideas are both very hard.  You may some day read that somewhere, but however hard they tell you it is, multiply it by a large number, square it, and raise it to the nth power.  Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but not by much.  As a continuation of number one, you need to immediately realize that anytime you are dealing with other human beings, things will not be easy.  When you become responsible for others in a leadership roll,  at times it can be near impossible.  However, let me be the first (Or insert actual number here) to say that when you connect and lead even a few successfully it is incredibly rewarding.
  3. You will never be able to lead everyone: I have yet to come across more than a few humble (and quite successful) leaders that will admit they have struggled to lead certain people or personality types.  This one is actually quite simple.  You will find throughout your personal and professional life that you cannot connect and lead everyone in every group.  This is where putting others on your team and surrounding yourself with great people is the key to success.  If you find that you are a big picture leader, you may very well struggle with highly technical types that are very invested in the details.  Guess what? Not a big deal, you just need to find someone that can empathize with that audience, but understands your passion, and then delegate.
  4. Your leadership style has to be you: Nobody likes a phony. Check that, no one that I associate with likes or enjoys the company of a phony.  And guess what, people don’t follow others that they perceive as fake.  Genuineness is immeasurably key to successful leadership.  While trust from your team, co-workers, boss, friends, and family is almost always built a bit differently, it is almost uniformly destroyed in an instance when people don’t trust you. Focus on being real, being you, and leading people naturally from within.  While it may sound a bit cliche, it isn’t.  If you try to be someone you’re not or emulate something you’re not, people will take notice.  When they do, it is often the end of any respect you have earned and that is a death sentence to an aspiring leader.
  5. The real world doesn’t value your education as much as you do: Formal education is a great thing.  As I mentioned above, it provides a lot of great insight and keeps the mind fresh.  It often gives you an opportunity to better understand concepts and why they are important.  What education doesn’t do is build you a reputation of success as a leader or much else for that matter.  Unless of course your goal is to be an educator.  Being a professor myself, I still feel the students are more interested in what I have accomplished outside of school than what I have done in the classroom.  (The sad thing is, I had to get the MBA to teach, but 99% of the value I bring is from what I do in the real world)  Bottom line is, school is nice, but the real world will judge you on what you accomplish in your respective field.  Whether that is medical or being a wonderful parent.  Further, you can read all of the Chicken Soup books and still be a bad parent/friend/spouse/neighbor.

While some of these things may come as a surprise to you, others may not.  For me, the items above were all things that at the very least stopped me in my tracks momentarily.  In academia, at times, the bubble surrounds and protects you in a way that you believe that the world may actually operate the way it does on campus.  In the books, everything sounds so clear cut and easy;  All you have to do are these 3 things and everyone will be mesmerized by your every word and you will become an instant peer to your industries greatest leaders.  Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.  The books and the school is meant to provide you context.  If you use it that way, it can be a great support tool as you adapt to your surroundings.  I certainly recommend it as a stepping stone in self development and would never advise anyone against continued learning.  What the formal education is not; it is not a road map for successful leadership.  That kind of leadership has to start with you, your values, your knowledge, and all the other intangibles.  All together and aligned in perfect harmony, that my friends creates great leadership.

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26 Responses to 5 Leadership Lessons You Can Only Get From Experience

  1. Peggy says:

    Loved this post on your new site! I appreciate your thoughts on formal education vs. experience/on the job training. Not too many share these thoughts once they obtain the MBA or Phd. While an education is fabulous, I like you, have learned much through reading books of the experts in the field.

    I too feel that leadership must come from within and is based on your knowledge, skills and values.

    Fresh original thoughts are enriching, I enjoyed yours.

  2. You nailed it! Great content, thanks!

  3. Gabriella O'Rourke says:

    Great post Dan. Education is great but will only take you so far. Real world experience is essential. Bit like learning to drive a car, the real driving takes place once you have your license. For me, the lesson that hit home most is #3, learning that you may not be able to lead everyone. There are definitely some characters and personalities I struggle with. I’ve learned now that it’s okay to surround myself with people who are mutually collaborative and willing to work together to create more than they can alone. I welcome debate, even contrary opinion, but when people are intentionally confrontational and subversive, I draw the line (and I’m okay with that).

  4. Dean says:

    Great overview, and extremely refreshing to hear from an “academic”. I use quotation marks, because you’re also a practitioner. Much of what you write applies as much to learning in general, as it does to leadership.
    I taught a grad course about 5 years ago as a sessional instructor, and was shocked to find how little prepared the students were prepared for life in the real working world. I ended up weaving some lessons in the reality of the working world into what I discussed with them. This aspect of reality beyond the ivory doors is something that is currently missing from most students academic life, but I suspect that is not the case for your students.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. Stafford Saunders II says:

    I, too, obtained my MBA from an Executive program and that experience itself validates one of your primary themes: as valuable as continuing formal education is to your development as a leader, the most useful, applicable, and enduring lessons learned come from actual hands-on experience. I, personally, learned much more from sharing experiences with my fellow EMBA participants than I did from the specific professors’ lectures and/or course work contained in the reading/training materials that made up the actual basis of the program.

    One comment that I would make that I think is highly relevant in a discussion about the difficulty of leading other human beings is something that I once heard (and I am not sure to whom it is attributable) in relation to the trials of being a parent: “Parenting would be easy if it were not for the damned kids!” Isn’t that true of leadership? When you are theorizing or formulating strategies and trying to execute tactical plans (to actually accomplish something), the hard part isn’t the cerebral formulation of the objectives and action plans necessary for their realization, it is the selling to-and buy-in of-and execution by-other human beings that determines how truly effective you are going to be able to be as a leader. Hence, the correlation: “leadership would be easy if it were for the damned followers” (who are going to be called on to follow your lead).

    Good article. I thought it made some very valid points.

  6. The meaning of education can only be seen in action. Knowledge isn’t enough; it’s the application that counts. Action is the only way to prove the value of the advanced degree (and the books on your shelf). Outstanding post, from someone who knows how to balance learning and doing. Great info!

  7. Jeff Little says:

    I spent 33 years in the military learning leadership the best way possible. My favourite definition of a leader is ‘a dealer in hope.’ I think too many people still get confused between leadership and management. One manages resources, but people can on be led. That is why the term ‘human resources’ is so awful! Everyone can be a leader. Leadership is the greatest responsibility of all – whether leading an expedition or leading a family or simply taking responsibility at the scene of a traffic accident when everyone else simply stands and watches. If we taught more people to be leaders then the world would be a far better place in which to live. True leaders enjoy life. There is nothing more satisfying than leading people – but it has to come from the heart. I had a Regimental Sergeant Major once whose take on life was very simple ‘Lead, follow or go away’ (actually he did not say ‘go away’ but used a much stronger term – however I think you will get the gist of his philosophy!)

  8. Great post, Dan. I fully agree with your comments on building leadership skills. While education lays a great foundation, ultimately we are all judged on our results. Thanks for sharing this with our group.

  9. Gene Wilson says:

    Like your perspectives on leadership….thanks! My own experience would suggest the most important part of being able to lead is to earn other’s respect. Once that is achieved, you are on your way. And, conversely, once you lose respect as a leader, it hardly ever can be recovered.
    They once interviewed one of the dolphin trainers at Seaworld as to how he could get the dolphins to jump out of the water on his command. The trainer responded “all you have to do is jump in and swim with them for 30 days, and once you get out of the water, they will most likely do whatever you ask of them”
    In my opinion, not enough of our supposed leaders ever jump in the pool for any significant length of time, if ever.

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  11. Trinidad says:

    It is usually difficult to find knowledgeable individuals on that topic, you sound like you understand what you are sharing! With thanks

  12. Given your experience as an adjunct professor at North Central College, and your leadership of a company, it is interesting to read your perspectives on the value of executive education and the challenges of leadership. Getting into cycling has taught me that being the lead dog can have its price both physically and mentally, and that your best chances for success are learning to leverage the abilities and strengths of others.

  13. Candra says:

    Nice contribution, refreshing web page theme, stick to the good work

  14. Kam Gupta says:

    Thank you foe sharing such a powerful topic of interest to all. In my experience, your comments reflect typical elements of leadership by experience, and highlight how we become limited by our own paradigms.

    New theories and new learning suggest otherwise and I like to share a few of them here with your permission.

    Great leaders do not use excuses like ‘I am human too’. Great leaders take responsibility for their actions and move forward. What is a mistake anyway? It is always after the fact. What is a mistake for one is the right thing for someone else. If a leader knows he or she was making a mistake, will they take that actions consciously? If yes, then it is not a mistake. And if no, then it can not be a mistake. Action or inaction are attributes of leadership decision making. There is so much known about the inside out leadership today. The fact we are leaders makes us even more human and humane in many ways.

    I challenge all the readers and the authors to think what kind of leaders they are. What percent of the time they are leading from inside and what percentage of the time from outside, and why? How they can increase the percentage of inside out leadership practice and grow it to 100 percent of the time. Then the lessons learned from life leadership will be real and so powerful that they will bring growth to and make a difference in every life touched. I know we all are capable of such great leadership. Love and Joy to all.

    Kam Gupta/ Executive Coach. http://www.linkedin.com/in/kamgupta

  15. Brock Carlton says:

    Very interesting and useful comments. I think it is really important to also be mindful of the fact that as a leader one is always being watched, and therefore is modelling behavoir. I like the recognition that we all make mistakes. Identifying those mistakes and articulating the lessons learned openly is important modelling for those you lead. I also like the comments on being true to yourself. Within that thought it is important to be able to analyze situations and lead in different ways according to context and the people involved, all while being genuine. Even in the most difficult conversations, including dismissals, I try to oriented from compassion so that people know we may disagree but they are being treated with honour and respect at the same time….but then, I do not always get it right!

  16. You will never learn the lessons of mountain climbing if you take a car to the top of the mountain.

  17. Jeannie Costantino says:

    1. Great leaders don’t always do the right thing even when people are looking:

    An open door policy, a comfortable, secure rapport and environment and the knowledge you can discuss any and everything with not only your leader, but your subordinates, will eliminate potential mistakes. Communication before mistakes happen are important.

    2. Leadership is very hard, even if it is innate:

    Surround yourself with the best of the best. Hire the leaders who have in the past made a difference in an organization and have great ideas and are not afraid to share. Again open door policy works every time. You do become responsible for others, so choose wisely.

    3. You will never be able to lead everyone:

    It’s your job to lead everyone. Lead by delegating to the best of the best you hired. You lead indirectly through the various teams or groups you have. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. Chemistry is important, the people you work with must have the same passion and vision for the company and want to see successes. This is how you connect with everyone on your team. A team is not just at the top it goes all the way to the core of the organization.

    4. Your leadership style has to be you:

    When a leader is acting like a phony, it might be because he doesn’t know what he is doing. Being a phony is a bad personality trait that is spotted fast. The problem with most corporations that fail these days is procrastination, not hiring the best people for your core team, not knowing what your people are capable of or where their weaknesses are, not trusting their judgement when they have proven themselves, not leading with intelligence and not hiring the right kind of people. Genuineness is not going to help when you have bigger problems. Have an open door policy so your people will communicate with you and tell you where the can of worms are.

    5. The real world doesn’t value your education as much as you do:

    Companies look at educated people for several reasons. Being educated and having a degree can get you an interview, you are looked upon as a well rounded individual who has completed something he started. Depending on your level and type of education it can make the difference in getting the interview and the position. They also use it as a tool to eliminate candidates if you don’t have a formal education. After you have 10 or more years experience having a proven track record of success is all they are interested in. They look to cut the learning curve. They want you to hit the floor running. So Cherish your education, you earned it and it can open doors, but practicing great leadership skills keeps your company growing and you in business.

    • I enjoyed your challenging rebuttal to all of my findings. The great thing about blogs and experiential knowledge is that it is our own. I have founded a certain level of success from the application of knowledge I have acquired. I’m sure you can say the same.
      Respect and best wishes in your endeavors.

  18. John Halter says:

    Street Smarts really doesn’t have anything to do with a formal education. It is the ability to size up people and real world situations, determine what is really happening and then take the steps to “get what you want”. Often these lessons are not learned in a college curriculum. Street Smart skills stem from real world experiences, with lessons learned from battles won and lost.

    I wish the college opportunity had been an option for me, but I took a different path and made sure I acquired the skills and knowledge to compete in the business world.

    I have committed my life to continuous learning and through many great mentors, active seminar and organizational involvement, and a voracious reading schedule I have learned the elements of running a business. Working side by side with others at different levels, I learned how and why people work. What good managers do to get results and bad managers do to kill progress.This immersion into real world experience kept me ahead of my contemporaries who took the college route. As they came out of school with their BA or MBA degrees they took their place behind me in the line trying to figure out how what they learned in school could help them motivate a group of employees to grasp agendas and accomplish goals.

    This immersion into real world experience kept me ahead of my contemporaries who took the college route. As they came out of school with their BA or MBA degrees they took their place behind me in the line trying to figure out how what they learned in school could help them motivate a group of employees to grasp agendas and accomplish goals.

    John Halter

  19. Rich Brown says:

    Great article and good sound advice.

    Rich. @live2evolve on Twitter

  20. Pam Ross says:

    Great post!
    Your point that “The real world doesn’t value your education as much as you do” rings so true with me. I have worked with Senior Managers (note I don’t necessarily say Leaders) who quoted things they learned while writing their university thesis to try to make a point… in an industry like the Hospitality one, where an MBA stands for “Mop Bucket Attitude”, these points only rubbed people the wrong way.

    I also strongly agree with being “real”. While I know I may not always say the “right” thing, I am personally well-known for being genuine and honest, and I’d rather that than conform to what someone has deemed to be “correct”.

  21. Kat Tansey says:

    Great post, Daniel!

    When I was studying for my Exec MBA in 1977, I was also working my way up the ladder at a Xerox start-up — and I too saw little relationship between what the books said and what I was observing in the “real world.” So I created a course called Organizational Power and Politics that I taught at UCLA Mgmt Extension for 3 yrs. It was gratifying to see the progress my students made in their careers once we starting telling the truth….

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