4 Reasons Why Bad Experiences are the Best Lessons in Leadership

David Letterman most likely had it right when he said, “Life experience is the best teacher.”  But I’d add a word and say that BAD life experiences are probably the best teacher, at least when you’re trying to grow in leadership and you’re willing to learn from them. 

Our Horizon Point team had a discussion about something related to this concept in a meeting based on some client experience that I can’t even recall now. This led to the idea of using this theme for a blog post.  

My team encouraged me to write about the lessons learned from difficult experiences with my oldest son, some of which I’ve written about before. This includes his challenges with epilepsy, medicines for epilepsy, reading, and his combined personality of being impulsive therefore lacking in self-control at times. These experiences and circumstances have shaped him and me.

When this came up, I shared with them how much I felt like he’d matured (and how much I had too as a parent watching him) in the last year or so.  Maybe it was just now developmentally appropriate to expect him to think about his thinking and his experiences, but over the last year it was becoming evident how the hard things had been molding him somehow. He’s finally gotten some outward wins, but in truth, the real wins have been from learning his way through hardships. 

All that he’s experienced has led him to be more empathetic, less likely to judge, and a heck of a hard worker. He’s gritty and determined. He’s competitive, but supportive and encouraging of other people’s successes nine times out of ten. He sees people, often people others neglect to see, and he feels deeply.  He’s becoming what my husband and I have wanted so badly for him, and if we are honest, what we have wanted so badly for our own selves and self images that we often can’t put aside no matter how hard we try.  He’s becoming a leader. 

We plan for blog posts about a month in advance. Little did I know that right before I was scheduled to turn in this post, I’d learn more and more about how the seemingly bad experiences shape us and also become answers to prayers, ultimately leading us to God’s purpose and direction for our leadership and lives.

I’d say that bad experiences make us the best leaders if we choose to learn from them. Through our attitude and self-reflection, we can turn them into good. Here’s why: 

    1. We become more self aware when we experience bad things and when we fail. It makes us stop and think why much more often than the good and the winning if we allow it to. What ownership do I need to take in the bad?  What is it I can and should control and what can’t I? What systems and structures have created or contributed to the bad? How can I impact them? It helps us understand ourselves better, and self-awareness is where great leadership has to start.
    2. We become more empathetic. Because we have struggles of our own, we are more apt to see others struggles, ask about them, listen well when they are shared, and try to empathize with them. We care. We develop more other awareness. Leadership skills have to be developed through the platinum rule- treat others as they’d like to be treated.  You have to know people well enough to be able to know how to treat them, and that starts with an empathetic mindset.
    3. We become more vulnerable.  We are less likely to know it all, try to be it all, and perfect it all and we are also less likely to expect others to do and be the same when we have experienced some healthy doses of humble pie. Leaders are at their best when they are transparent and that usually begins with a comfort level with being vulnerable.
    4. We are better able to realize who our true friends and advocates are and who we want to align ourselves with. There’s nothing like being kicked when you’re already down and that often happens when we experience bad things. Others can come full force with their feet sometimes, whether they realize it or not, when people are down and out.  Leaders have to build strong and safe teams around shared values, and sometimes the only way to know a friend from a foe is to see them from our own spot of rock bottom. I loved this podcast where Reese Witherspoon articulates the “bottom third” to steer clear of. You sometimes are only able to identify the bottom third of people actively working against you if you aren’t on top. 

Self awareness, empathy, vulnerability and strong teams are the cornerstones of leadership and, sometimes, they are only taught and learned through the school of hard knocks. 

How have you learned and come out leading through the bad?

Mary Ila Ward

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