2 Ways Leaders Should Learn from Their Experiences

Leaders who care about their own personal development are like sponges to an array of resources in order to acquire new knowledge and skills. They will read books, consider continuing education, attend conferences, and scour articles that have been sent to them by their leaders. While these are important and can be very helpful, nothing compares to the learning that comes through experience.

In a recent conversation with a human resources consultant, he advocated that while books, articles, and conferences can account for about 20% of a person’s development, the experience of taking on new responsibilities or assignments accounts for 80% of a person’s development. I think he is right. Experience develops you more than any class or book can. So here are two thoughts on learning all you can from “Professor Experience”:

Be intentionally overwhelmed.

Take on a bit more than you think you can handle. Seasons of being overwhelmed are the best seasons of learning. I have seen this over and over again. For example:

  • the pastor who senses the most fruitful season of ministry, the one that is simultaneously the most challenging
  • the author who has no clue how the deadline will be hit yet looks back at “that season” as rewarding and sanctifying
  • the team member who sets a big goal and allows the goal to push and prod him toward new learning and greater focus
  • the seminary student who feels desperate over the amount of juggling responsibilities but who, looking back, feels, “I learned how to get more done than I ever thought possible.”

I did not say to take on “massively more” than you can handle. You must prove faithful with what the Lord has given you, but put yourself in a posture of needing development. And don’t wait on your boss to assign it. Find an opportunity within your realm of responsibility to overwhelm yourself with a new expectation. The most developed leaders are the ones intrinsically motivated.

Seek feedback from trusted leaders.

In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin makes the strong case that the top performers in any field have engaged in “deliberate practice” for sustained seasons of their lives. One critical aspect of deliberate practice is continual feedback. Those who develop best are those who receive real-time feedback as they are practicing.

Steve Kerr, chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, says, “Practice without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down at knee level.” In other words, if you engage a new discipline or initiative without feedback, you really have no clue how you are progressing. Feedback from seasoned and trusted leaders who love you is invaluable, especially during a season of new experience. It is wise to solicit feedback from others you trust deeply, including leaders above you, alongside you, and those you lead.

Experience is a great teacher, and more so if the experience feels like more than you can handle and if you receive coaching and feedback in the midst of it.