How do Leaders Learn to Lead?

January 19, 2015 • Coaching, LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development, Social Impact

By Gerard Seijts

How do leaders go through the learning process? What are the formative and informative experiences that influence leaders? How do they reflect on events and truly learn from their mistakes and successes? How do they unlearn dysfunctional habits? How do they become more self-aware? Gerard Seijts explored these questions for his recent book, Good Leaders Learn: Lessons From Lifetimes of Leadership. Through 30-plus probing interviews with senior leaders from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors he brings to light lessons on the importance of life-long learning. Below are some of the most important lessons he identified.

I often welcome outstanding leaders into my classroom to reflect on their leadership. They all tell me they learned to become a good leader – and that their development to become an even better leader is an ongoing process. Writing my book I hoped to discover insights into how educators and organisations can help individuals to become good leaders. Equally important, I also wanted to show the next generation of leaders the paths they can take to develop or further enhance the leadership qualities vital to their continuing success.

Even though the leaders I interviewed for the book came from various different cultures, backgrounds, and fields of endeavour, I noticed that many of them were shaped by similar experiences along their paths to leadership. For example, I learned that very few of the leaders had long held a deep desire or ambition to become a leader. It was remarkable to me that many of them had trouble recalling the first time they realised they were leaders, it was simply not at the top of their minds when they began their careers.

What these leaders did remember, however, is that they wanted to excel and to make a positive difference. They enjoyed taking charge and getting things done with their teams and, once they tasted the fulfillment that comes with leadership success, they took on additional responsibilities. These led to more formal leadership roles. But as the former Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin, said: “I don’t think I ever had a lightning strike hit me and say, Genghis Khan, here I come!” Thus, they didn’t wake up one day, decide they were leaders, and then go in search of projects or jobs in which they could lead. Instead, when opportunities to lead came up, they took advantage of these opportunities.

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