LeadershipLearning & Development

When the experience of leaders gets in the way

It sounds very confronting if one claims that experience can prevent leaders from demonstrating effective leadership. Especially because most of them invest a lot of time and energy to acquire necessary skills and competencies. They certainly know a lot.

And yet, many leaders constantly feel unprepared for the never-ending requirements of their organisations. With all their experience, they still lack time, trust, good teams, and eventually patience.

The purpose of this article is to point out to the leaders the need to shift their mindset so that they can capitalize on their valuable years of experience and demonstrate truly mature and effective leadership in their complex business realities.

EXPERIENCE AND MATURITY

“Life scales or it dies. Growth is built into all living organisms.”[1]

The same is valid for leadership. Leaders need to continuously evolve to meet the demands of their complex business realities.

Leaders grow or the effectiveness of their leadership dies. And does their experience automatically mean leadership growth and maturity?

If we define experience as collecting practical knowledge and learning skills while being in a leader’s role for some time, then we can define a mature leader as the one that, beside acquiring new skills, also develops personally to be able to demonstrate leadership wisdom and effectiveness.

It’s wrong to simply assume that years of leadership experience directly correspond to leadership maturity. As much as there is learning involved in both, it’s a different kind of learning. That is why the leadership wisdom and effectiveness don’t go hand in hand with the number of years of experience.

So, how do we make sure that while we collect our years of experience, we also truly grow as leaders?

If our learning is focused solely on new skills, we are dealing with a technical challenge. Leadership growth and maturity very much come from adaptive challenges that are part of our personal development – a process in which we deepen self-awareness and explore our developmental edges. It goes beyond adding a new tool to our toolbox.

Unlike the technical challenge, the adaptive one is met by shifting our leadership mindset. It’s not just adding a new tool to our leadership toolbox. We expand the size of the box. That’s when we truly grow.

This growth is possible when leaders adopt the attitude of personal learners. Then their true leadership adventure starts. It goes beyond years of experience and into the pursuit of becoming all they are truly capable of becoming as they grow in self-awareness, wisdom, knowledge, and insight.

Leaders as personal learners have a committed interest in actively unlocking their full leadership potential knowing that the growth gain depends on their openness to developmental pain, rather than their practical knowledge from years of experience spent in a certain role.

Otherwise, they can choose to stay attached to their experience that throughout the years has shaped their assumptions of who they are and who they need to continue to be and act as leaders, without ever questioning themselves on a deeper level. The paradox is that their years of experience at a certain point may get in the way of their leadership impact.

Paradox happens when they are not open to their curious mind: How can I be wrong? What else can be true here? How can I do things differently?

One of the ways we grow in our complex worlds is by taking a step back from our leadership experience to question what we know and what serves us even after years of our leadership practice.

COMPLICATED AND COMPLEX

Change is the regular nature of our world, and our openness to learning is our best response to it.

In my forthcoming book called Bold Reinvented: Next Level Leading with Courage, Consciousness, and Conviction, I encourage leaders to embrace this perspective: in the complex world, effective leading equals a never-ending conscious and intentional learning.

What is complex? Complexity is best understood through the difference between complicated and complex.

Complicated brings “known unknowns” with the range of right answers; complex brings “unknown unknowns” with no right answers.[2] While we can be experts in having the solution to what’s complicated, in complexity we are faced with different rules; it’s impossible to predict the right solution. Therefore, our experience does not play a major role, because as much as we are experienced in what we have been doing so far, we are not necessarily wise enough for the unpredictability we need to address next.

Rather than staying attached to our experience of what worked in the past, we have to start operating from a yet unknown mindset level to ensure the right performance. Or we may end up feeling overwhelmed rather than wise.

STRUCTURE AND PERFORMANCE

Structure determines performance – that is a key premise of the Universal Model of Leadership. [3] Performance in the context of leadership seems obvious, but what is the structure?

In a simple phrase, the structure is the leader. Leaders’ internal operating systems determine their performance.

The internal operating system framed in our consciousness determines the way we make sense of our reality, and then has us make decisions, think, act, and perform accordingly. Our overall leadership performance will depend on the level of our internal operating system.

When the level of our performance is not up to the level of what our circumstances expect of us, we won’t find a solution by working harder, even though this is exactly what we may automatically do. Working harder means working more, but in the same way as before. In the long run, we end up with less return on our increased efforts.

Here’s what it looks like in practice. Imagine a dedicated, responsible leader who is constantly lacking time due to the increased obligations. The immediate response may be trying to work harder and longer to make up for the insufficient time. It’s an unsustainable solution that turns into a losing and exhausting battle with time.

Leaning only on our experience, on what used to serve us in the past, is not a sustainable solution as we move to more complex challenges.

The mismatch between the levels of our performance and the demands of our reality can be solved sustainably by working differently. To fight the battle against time more effectively, our leader could, for instance, be leveraging more the power of relationships instead of over-engaging their self-sufficient attitude to work. That would mean working differently, and would also require a mindset shift through adaptive learning.

Shifting our mindset means upgrading our operating system to run our more complex circumstances as if they were more advanced applications. Because the current one with all our experience is not designed to ensure the level of performance required for the new circumstances.

Being leaders in an increasingly complex business world, we come to the point when we simply need to change, regardless of our experience. Otherwise, our leadership effectiveness is seriously challenged.

STRENGTHS AND LIABILITIES

The authors of the book Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most, [4] have done an interesting research around what differentiates the most effective leaders and how the strengths of high-reactive leaders are offset by their liabilities.

For the purpose of this article, high-reactive leaders are those that have years of experience and valuable practical knowledge but still need to engage in adaptive learning and development to be able to demonstrate effective and mature leadership.

When the strengths of such leaders are directly compared to their liabilities, they stand in their own way and cancel out their leadership impact.

Here are just a few insights:

  • Leaders that have the strength of being result-focused, cancel themselves out by micromanaging
  • Leaders that are visionary and strategic, cancel their impact by not being team players
  • Leaders that have huge technical knowledge in a certain area, stand in their own way by being over-demanding
  • Leaders that have huge passion fail to have the desired impact due to their ineffective interaction style
  • Leaders that are creative and innovative, but at the same time too self-centric, cancel themselves out
  • Leaders that are personable and approachable but lack emotional control, stand in their own way

Despite these strengths, the liabilities that these leaders cannot let go of eventually have the power to cancel out their effective leadership impact.

What does that mean in practice? Let’s take the example of the result-focused leader and micromanaging. Even if the leaders increase their focus on results as their great strength, it won’t make their leadership effective unless they stop micromanaging.

Their micromanaging style will continue to cancel out their otherwise important and now increased focus on results. They don’t need more focus on results than they need a non-micromanaging approach. This means doing things differently and not necessarily harder, longer, or more.

The truth is that micromanaging has probably served these leaders well throughout their experience. Perhaps they even have the experience of being rewarded for keeping things under control to the micro-level. And because this controlling tendency served them well throughout the years of their experience, it feels so risky and uncomfortable to let go of it.

Crossing the edge of that discomfort requires a mindset shift. Until they do their adaptive learning work, their years of experience won’t be enough to do the job.

They won’t truly capitalize on their years of leadership experience until they have become ready to experience the shift on the level of their mindset required by their increasingly complex business reality.

SPONSORING AND LEADING

How to start this shift and where from? Leadership begins by confronting yourself first. When it comes to change, leaders start with themselves knowing the crucial difference between sponsoring the change and leading it. Sponsoring is simply not enough. For our leadership to mature and become effective, we need to acknowledge that our first change project is called “Self”.

These are the four essential steps of the “Self” project.

1. Leaders acknowledge the gap

Our more effective and mature leadership journey starts with the awareness of the gap between the leader we are today and the one we wish to be. If we deny the existence of this gap, we deny the growth potential of our leadership.

There are several assessment tools to quickly raise awareness of this gap. Still, they won’t do the work without leaders’ readiness to take their development gaps seriously.

How ready are you to see your leadership development gap?

2. Leaders build the feedback-rich environment

One of the ways to take your leadership development gap seriously is to go back to your relationships for feedback. Many leaders do not have clarity about their impact on their teams and organisations.

Leadership does not happen in isolation. You will never be able to fully understand your leadership impact unless you approach people that regularly experience it. Showing willingness to ask for feedback and building intrapersonal skills to receive it, is a key step in developing effective leadership.

The more experienced we are as leaders, the riskier it can be to take this step. It really is a choice between taking a risk of being vulnerable and leaving our leadership potential locked in our blind spots.

How much advantage do you take from the feedback-rich environment you live and lead in every day?

3. Leaders focus on the key thing that cancels out their effectiveness

In their development, leaders start by focusing on the key thing that can take their leadership to the next level.

There are development tools that can help us uncover this key thing and set us up for a successful change. We can also, once again, lean on our feedback- rich environment to receive clarity around the key thing we need to work on to avoid our cancelling effect.

If you could do it all over again, what is one key thing in your leadership that you would change? What would your environment say about this

4.Leaders learn publicly

Regardless of their experience, all leaders need to continuously ask for feedback from the people in their environment.

Learning openly and publicly is always vulnerable. Still, going back to the people around us to get feedback and find a partner that can hold us accountable on our change journey is a well-developed muscle of any effective leader.

What’s more important for your leadership than the risk of vulnerability?

The experience can sometimes blind our curious learning mind. As Peter Block put it, “It’s hard to learn when we think we know something.” This quote points us to the mandatory shift for all experienced and inexperienced leaders: the one from knowing to learning.

Embracing this shift can help us hold the paradox of leading others while accepting, with humility, that we are merely one among many learners around us. At all times, and yes, regardless of our years of experience.


Author: Žana Goić Petričević, Founder, Managing Director, Leadership Coach & Consultant, Bold Leadership Culture

Footnotes: 

  1. Anderson, Robert J. and Adams, William A. Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019.
  2. The Cynefin® Framework, https://www.cognitive- edge.com/the-cynefin-framework/
  3. Anderson, Robert J. and Adams, William A. Mastering Leadership: An Integrated Framework for Breakthrough Performance and Extraordinary Business Results. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016.
  4. Anderson, Robert J. and Adams, William A. Scaling Leadership: Building Organizational Capability and Capacity to Create Outcomes that Matter Most. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019.
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