Top Three Leadership Developmental Experiences

“To every man there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered that chance to do a very special thing, unique to him and his talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for that work.”  ~Winston Churchill

What are you doing to prepare and develop yourself as a leader? If you believe that leaders are made, not born, then you need to figure out the best way develop and grow your leadership abilities. 


Common learning challenges for leaders are what to do and when to find time to do it. Attending schools, reading books and going to seminars are good activities to learn about leadership.

But according to senior military officers the best development opportunities are right around you. Officers attending the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leadership at the Peak program participated in a survey of their key developmental experiences and the lessons learned from those events. The goal was to answer the question, how do military leaders learn the lessons of leadership?

You might think it would be from classroom leader development and battlefield experience. Respondents were asked to reflect on their careers and to share the key developmental experiences that led to a lasting change in the way they lead or manage.

The top three developmental experiences were:

1. Positive Role Models

2. Negative Role Models

3. Failures and Mistakes

Were you surprised? You have heard the saying, “people do what people see.” Just as children learn from observing their parents, we learn much about leadership from observing other leaders, both good and bad.

Jack Welch said, “Everybody is a mentor. Learn something from each person. Keep your eyes and ears open and wanting to learn. Keep a constant growth mindset.” When I think about my own best leadership lessons learned, I come up with several good leaders that I worked for and several not so good.

Some of my most vivid leadership lessons were learned from observing bad leaders and vowing never to lead like that. I also had many good leaders that made me want to emulate them as close as possible.

Turn the workplace into a classroom. Seek out those leaders that people agree are doing a good job. Look at how they interact with people. Observe how they make decisions. Notice how they communicate.

When you study a great leader, you get the amplified boost of studying the very best and shortcutting your learning. Just make sure that:

1. You are intentional about your efforts.

2. You record, then reflect on your observations.

3. You use these lessons, good or bad, to guide your development as a leader.

The third developmental experience, learning from our failures and mistakes, is also a great teacher, but that is a lesson for another day. Be all you can be as a leader today!