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Learning from Experience

Everyone knows that experience is a great teacher. Experiences of all kinds offer us opportunities for learning to become better leaders. There are two extremes. There are those who spend a career, indeed a lifetime, learning the same thing over and over again from their experiences. Then there are
others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, who learn more eficiently by developing their capacity to get the most out of every learning experience they encounter. The latter people learn more from opportunistic experiences – they sometimes deliberately design such experiences. That is the height of learning effectively, and it is what role model leaders do.

Those of us who play golf watch professional golfers swing a club and are inspired to work harder at the game. It is unlikely that watching Rory McIlroy or even a journeyman pro will raise our functioning capability to professional levels, but almost certainly we can learn something from the experience of watching those magniicent swing mechanics. And even when we do not learn to function on the course as well as we might hope, the experience of watching will enhance our preparedness, our spirit, our being, and our character and cause us to be more motivated to improve our functional skill to swing a club better than before.

Learning from observing can achieve a positive outcome. But learning from experience is meant to stimulate action. This can be doing something and making a mistake or doing something right the irst time. Many will tell you making mistakes and learning from those mistakes is the preferred route. This has always caused me some concern. Of course, making mistakes is a natural occurrence when taking action in the engineering, scientiic, and business worlds, and coupled with a root cause, analysis and corrective action is a route to positive learning. But, the preferred route is disciplined, orderly thinking before taking action and learning from the experience of successful outcomes.

The point here is that learning from experience is itself a leadership skill. Role model leaders need to demonstrate a passion for doing so. This is the height of practicing reciprocal maintenance. On a team, if team leaders seek out learning experiences by observing, listening, interacting, and sensing the contributions of others who are following in the team process, those followers will give back to the leaders and see a common purpose in assisting the leaders in their role.

Learning experiences can and should be designed by both individuals and the organization. All individuals at all times learn from what they see and do, but this is an unorganized, ad hoc approach to learning from experience. A better alternative is to use tools such as the levels of thought to systematically design learning experiences.

The organization that is encouraging an Everyone a Leader strategy will design a system that encourages progress in leadership skills and reward individuals on the basis of their progress. In the high-performance organization, such systems are very similar to those used in all organizations for
Figure 5.2 Levels of Accomplishment

Aspiring Leader

An individual who chooses to be engaged in learning to lead self and then others

Developing Leader

An individual who is learning and practising certain skills, character attributes and purposeful behaviours defining leading and leadership competence

Role Model Leader

An individual who has reached a level of competency in leading and leadership and who is recognized and admired by others

Organizational Leader

A competent developing role model leader actively engaged in the work of growing organizations and achieving higher levels of performance

High Performance Organizational Leader

A highly competent role model organizational leader dedicated to and achieving aspirational future state targets that benefit all stakeholders

encouraging and measuring the growth of other functional skills (e.g., engineering, marketing, and so on).

A learning framework to illustrate this organizational development dynamic is given above, along with two hypothetical examples of people developing in different ways although they are both motivated by the promise and reward of Everyone a Leader.

It is worth mentioning that this framework and example are not differentiating accomplishment by title or hierarchical level but by identifying a cascading scale of developed capability. A CEO of a company could, depending on competence at any point in time, be a level 3, 4, or 5, in my experience.

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