Leadership: Learning by Doing

A learning curve is a natural part of just about everything we do. Learning to walk, children stumble and sometimes break things. Learning to play an instrument, we often miss a note. Learning to lead people has a learning curve too. It takes time, patience (from everyone involved), and practice. Lot’s of practice!

There is a distinct difference in my mind between leaders and managers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to the two together. The context I’m describing here includes the management of others – which ideally includes both management and leadership skills working together.

New leaders come from all backgrounds. Socio-economics, education, age, experience, technical proficiency, language, culture… Everyone starts from a unique place, but the journey of leadership has a number of universal constants.

First, no real person I’ve ever met or heard of starts off as an expert in leadership or management. Interacting with people is a full contact activity. Like all contact activities, we need contact to understand the full experience. No one learns to dance with a partner, play football, or wrestle by reading a book, looking in the mirror and pretending they’re getting the job done. Similarly, we can’t learn to be a leader by reading books or imagining what it is like to get the job done. Reading books helps for sure, but it’s no substitute for experience.

“Leadership is an emotional experience.”

Second, leadership is an emotional experience. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise hasn’t done it. Emotions can be one of our greatest tools. They give us the ability to feel empathy. Emotions can also be unpredictable and cause us grief. Understanding how we will react in various situations and learning to control our emotions is part of the leadership process.

Third, everyone on the leadership journey will confront incompetence, fear, and uncertainty in themselves. I personally think the journey of leadership, if taken on deliberately and with care, is the best self-help / maturation program available. When we lead, especially in government, we don’t get the choice to only lead the people we like. We get all kinds of people. This forces us to face our own weaknesses and adapt. Coaching and mentoring is a huge benefit to those who take on the leadership challenge.

In every case, emerging leaders will challenged by the people they lead and the organizations they operate in. Both the people we lead and organizations we are part of have different and often evolving expectations and needs. An effervescent leader may find themselves leading a technical whiz who needs help getting organized around solving technical problems. A technically dominant leader may find themselves leading someone who needs continual emotional support and encouragement. A young leader may find themselves leading people who are 2 or 3 times their age.

Once we start the leadership journey, it is normal to find ourselves starting over and over again. Each new assignment brings a new set of people, expectations, and a whole new set of skills and values we have to learn. Once we learn how to deal with one group or situation, something new comes up or the group changes. This cycle never stops.

It’s a fallacy to believe that new leader/managers are going to be good at what they are being asked to do right out of the gate. They will make mistakes. Those mistakes are both necessary and good. Mistakes are not something to be overly concerned about. How well the leader/manager and the organization responds to mistakes has a much more lasting effect on outcomes.

It makes good sense to give new leaders / managers some room to make necessary mistakes. They are learning. We should keep an eye on them, coach them, correct them, and hold them accountable, but recognize that true leadership is a process, not a title.

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Corey McCarren

I really like this post. When I first went to the college I attended for undergrad, I had a friend who said to me the best compliment I’ve ever received even though it was really blunt. She was a student leader on campus and someone I really respected, and said “When you first got here I was thinking ‘who is this kid and what does he think he’s doing here (regarding me joining the Student Association)’, now I think you’re ready to take on the world”. It was definitely a process and took a lot of work to become the latter.

Do you thin that leadership as a trait ever stops, or once you have that trait you always have the qualities of a leader?

David Dejewski


Keep in mind that I believe there is a distinct difference between leadership and management as I respond to your question.

The concept of having a “trait” or not implies genetics. Like something built into our DNA. While I believe that there are some personality “traits” that make it easier to be a leader in some circumstances, there is also a good amount of choice and good old fashioned practice involved.

We can be leaders whether we’re “the one leading” or not. It’s a personal choice. Every day, we chose, consciously or unconsciously, to do the right thing, to smile, to be kind, or not. Every day, we chose how much we are willing to put ourselves “out there.” We chose what kind of an example we want to be. From that perspective, I think we all have the ability to be a leader for as long as we wish under any circumstance.

When it comes to actively leading people from the perspective of taking on a role to care for them, help them grow, organize and focus group activities, tap their needs and translate them into words, prioritize, etc. we experience this in levels. Like a car shifting gears, we step on the gas, rev up the engine, push in the clutch to spin the gears into neutral, and engage the next gear using the momentum from the first to allow us to engage properly. The process of shifting naturally forces up, downs and lulls in RPM. The end result is forward momentum and an increase in speed.

When other people are involved, the process is collective as well as individual. When you chose to take responsibility for a group of people: you engage the entire group, slowly rev up (in terms of trust, performance, synergy, respect, etc), accomplish some things, then inevitably start over again – either with a new group, a changed group, or by taking yourself and/or your group to a new level.

As you proved in the context of the student association – you started off unknown and untrusted, but clearly managed to earn the trust and praise of a student leader you respected. That wasn’t your last experience, to be sure. I’d bet you’ll have many more as you chose to lead & follow your passion.

The bottom line is this: expect for there to be ups and downs if you decide to continue the leadership journey. Every experience builds on the previous. You’ll need to practice, to chose, and to surround yourself with people you trust to help you along the way. Give yourself the right to make mistakes and slip backwards from time to time. That’s just a natural part of the shifting mechanism.

Gordon Lee Salmon

Thanks David. I couldn’t agree with you more. The inability of leaders and organizations to establish a culture of learning from failure dooms it to mediocrity and in ineffectiveness. Elliot Masie believes that we learn best when we adopt an attitude of “fail your way to success.”

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

Someone once told me that a good leader is one who gives everyone else around him/her most of the credit. I have found that I am willing to follow anyone who does this, no matter the organization. Thanks for the great post!

David Dejewski

Hmm… That sounds like a good subject for another post, Dorothy. Thanks for the comment & idea!

Hey… I’d like your feedback if I post something on the subject. Can I count on you?

Gordon – I looked up Elliot Masie’s work. I figure a guy with your background and experience has some good nuggets to share! I only found one: Using Computers in High School Student Activities: A Handbook for Clubs, Teams, Publications, Councils. Is the reference you made to his work in this publication?

Interesting, there is also a book titled “Fail Your Way to Success” by J. Michael Derem. Seems relevant. What do you think?

Gordon Lee Salmon

David I heard the quote from Masie several years ago when I was attending a leadership forum. I don’t know if it was his or he borrowed it without attribution. Deems book looks like itvhas the same message-It still makes sense that we all can learn from failure and if open we can do better.