Experience: Recasting leadership development

2 minute read

Experience: Recasting leadership development


Where do good leaders come from? Are they naturally gifted, or is there something else assisting them? 

A research article by Morgan W. McCall discusses seven conclusions about the role of experience in leadership development. This article outlines how experience can be placed at the centre of leadership development efforts. 


The seven conclusions about the role of experience in leadership development include: 


1. Leadership is learned through experience: 

This is readily accepted as you look at a set of twins, analysing their personality as well as other traits. The research found that 30% of leadership characteristics can be attributed to heredity, but the vast majority, 70%, is down to experience. 

2. Some experiences matter more than others: 

On-the-job development helps, but it is not as important to leadership development as you may think. This is because many of the defining experiences that great leaders have, do not come from their jobs. Leadership characteristics come from a variety of life experiences, including hardships, people surrounding them, and past bosses. 

3. Experiences are powerful because of the challenges they present: 

With new challenge comes a powerful learning experience. Everything that makes a new situation difficult - unexpected happenings, pressure, novelty, frustration, etc. - allow the individual to grow and develop even further.

4. Different types of experiences teach different lessons: 

It is crucial in development that the individual is exposed to a range of experiences so that they develop in a range of ways. This gives rise to a well-rounded individual who is able to tackle multiple dimensions of issues, as opposed to only having experienced only one type of issue repeatedly.

5. Jobs and assignments can be made more developmental: 

Leadership experiences can be developmentally enhanced by adding feedback and coaching. Enabling leaders to focus and learn allows them to grow without having to seek out new experiences (such as finding a new job).

6. Who decides on developmental opportunities:

It is vital to have a manager who has an awareness of their direct report's experiential needs and places them in those areas intentionally. As opposed to expecting the individual to figure it out for themselves.

7. Learning takes place over time and is dynamic: 

There is no linear straight line to development, and timing is essential when determining developmental opportunities for individuals. Someone who isn't ready to learn and develop will be far less likely to learn from experience if they are not yet ready to do so.

While training and education programmes are easier to define and measure, experience plays an important role in the development of future leaders.  The important  point to note is that leadership development  is not an individual responsibility but rather a team effort between manager and direct report with clear intentions guiding the process.

Three things organisations can work on to make experiences more effective for developing leaders: 

1. Decide whom to give experiences to.
2. Work on the transition from individual contributor to manager.
3. Don't assume that everyone learns through experience.