How to Learn From Experience When You Have None


glasses on book_optI recently drove by a local business that had a sign out front advertising that they are “Now Hiring Leadership.” That struck me as an odd phrase. What exactly does it mean?

Leadership is difficult to define and multifaceted, so I’m not really sure what aspect they are referring to. Are they looking for people with a specific skill set? People with leadership character or mindset? Someone who can fill a certain position or title?

While I can’t be certain what they are looking for, it did get me thinking about what I desire in new leaders. For me, the number one indicator for success in new leaders is their ability to grow. Individuals who are constantly learning new skills and challenging their understanding of the world will be prepared to thrive in today’s rapidly shifting environment.

“Your capacity to grow determines your capacity to lead.” – Mark Miller

Here are several ways to learn and grow as a leader.

Learning From Personal Experience

There is no replacement for personal experience. Many of the leadership lessons that I have learned over the years have come from observing the results of my own actions or the actions of those around me. We can see with our own eyes what works and what doesn’t. Over time, these lessons start to accumulate and improve our ability to lead.

It is important to note that this will not happen through observation alone. Reflection is required to turn observations into valuable lessons. If we don’t spend the time evaluating and analyzing our observations, they will never turn into lessons that we can learn from.

While it may be tempting to focus on “leadership” experiences, we can learn valuable lessons even from everyday experiences. Every interaction we have or observe with another person is an opportunity to learn a lesson that can be applied to improve our leadership abilities.

Make it a habit to regularly reflect on your experiences and observations and you will gradually turn those everyday experiences into broader principles and understanding that can be applied in future situations.

It is also important to proactively look for and volunteer for opportunities that get you out of your comfort zone. This will force you into situations that are beyond your current understanding and will force you to learn something new. Stretch yourself into new, uncomfortable spaces that will give you the opportunity to learn new lessons.

But what if you don’t have many personal experiences to draw from? Maybe you are young or early in your career. Maybe you just haven’t had many leadership experiences or opportunities. What can you do to grow as a leader?

While personal experiences are the best way to learn, learning from the experiences of others is the next best thing. Here are a few strategies that can help you maximize your learning from the experience of others.

Ask Questions

There is no better way to learn than by asking questions. Ask others about their experiences and what they have learned from them. Try to understand not only the actions of others, but also their motivations and thought process. If you can understand a situation from another person’s perspective, you can learn the same lessons they did without experiencing that situation yourself.

A good example of learning by asking questions of others is a mentor relationship. Find someone who is more experienced than you who is willing to help you grow by sharing their own experiences. They can provide you with fresh perspectives, timely advice, and challenge you as you grow.

Also keep in mind that these same conversations can happen in less formal settings. You can learn from anyone, not just those that you perceive as more talented or experienced. Have the humility to ask questions of anyone, at any time. You never know what experiences they have had or what lessons they have learned that you could benefit from. Try to make a habit of asking yourself, “What can I learn from this person?”

Indirect Relationships

It is also possible to learn from the experiences of those that you have never actually met in person. There are numerous platforms available today for experts to share their ideas to large audiences. Speaking events, videos, blogs, newsletters, books, etc.

Take advantage of as many of these as you can. I encourage you to check out TED talks, take advantage of opportunities to hear talented speakers, and read widely. Read blog posts, books, newspaper and magazine articles. Anything you can get your hands on. I would also encourage you to read on topics that vary from your primary interests. This will stretch you out of your comfort zone and accelerate your growth.

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” – A C Grayling

Reading books is one of my favorite ways to learn. If you are not sure where to get started, I have put together a list of some of my favorite books that I have read recently. They cover a wide range of leadership and improvement related topics and might give you some ideas.

What about you? How do you learn and grow? Are there any books or websites that you would like to recommend to others?

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