A leaders life experiences create the personal capacity they need to lead. Our experiences shape us and make us, our experiences have a profound affect on our worldview as leaders. Consider the following story from the biography of Winston Churchill as told in the book “Winston Spencer Churchill: The Last Lion, Visions of Glory”:
“Sickly, an uncoordinated weakling with the pale fragile hands of a girl, speaking with a lisp and a slight stutter, he had been at the mercy of bullies. They beat him, ridiculed him, and pelted him with cricket balls. Trembling and humiliated, he hid in a nearby woods. This was hardly the stuff of which gladiators are made.”
Could this experience have given Churchill the determination to lead the charge against Hitler during the second world war?
Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” made the following observation of leaders:
“Most of the outstanding leaders I’ve worked with are neither tall nor especially handsome; they are often mediocre public speakers; they do not stand out in a crowd; they do not mesmerize an attending audience with there brilliance or eloquence. Rather, what distinguishes them is their clarity and persuasiveness of their ideas, the depth of their commitment, and their openness to continually learning more”
Life experiences and our response to them are of critical importance in how leaders are formed and the kind of leaders we become.
The experiences that shape leaders as they journey through life are referred to as passages by David Dotlich in the Ivey Business Journal article, “Adversity: What Make a Leader the Most” describing life’s adverse and diverse experiences as passages because:
“they take you from one place to another. You see the world and yourself differently after you’ve gone through the events and emotional states that define each passage…these passages are emotionally and cognitively intense….as a result your sense of self changes in a fundamental way. Who you are, what you’re capable of doing and your place in the world will all shift”
These adverse and diverse passages are illustrated by David using the following matrix:
The power of experiences to shape a leader’s mindset and perspective is huge, in fact experiences are so powerful they can have the opposite effect, just as experiences can make us stronger they can also paralyse us, causing us to cower and retreat from life. Fearful of having another similar experience, we rather play it safe, not venturing out, not taking risks, seeking the safety of “positional leadership”.
To develop as leaders we must be careful in how we respond to our life passages. There are have two choices:
- Bad Experience + Poor Response = Shaky Foundation
- Bad Experience + Good Response = Learning and Growth
The result is that we have two types of leaders:
- Leaders who responded poorly to life’s passages, develop faulty worldviews and lead out of fear, abusing their power, controlling others and seeking position as a means to exert influence.
- Leaders who responded to life’s passages from a learning stance, looking for the opportunity and lessons to be learned, remaining open and vulnerable. They lead authentically, not from pride, exerting influence through relationships and personal character and commitment.
The process where leaders use their life expedience’s to shape who they are is described by Warren Bennis in “On Becoming a Leader” as follows:
“Until you make your life your own, you’re walking in borrowed clothes. Leaders, whatever their field, are made up as much of their experiences as their skills, like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, they use their experiences rather than being used by it.”
Considering how important our life experiences are in shaping and making us as leaders:
- Are you taking time to reflect and learn from your life experiences?
- Think of a turning point in your leadership journey, one that that shaped you as a leader, a critical moment of adversity or diversity that changed how you understood leadership and shaped your leadership approach. How have your responded to this experience? Does your response need to change?