Get in the Game: Learning by Leading

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There are three primary ways that one can learn leadership (See Leaders Must Be Learners): direct personal experience, through the wise counsel of others, and through the study of leadership materials.

Let’s focus in on the first point: direct personal experience.  If you want to learn to be a better leader, pick something and lead. One of my first learning opportunities came from a failed leadership bid.

In my last year of high school I decided to run for School Council President. A few friends came together to form a small party and we set to campaigning for our election. In fact, we even put together a swing dance routine which we performed in front of the whole school. I was running against only one other candidate and I thought I would certainly win but alas when the results came in, I had lost the election. A few days later as the Council was starting, I was offered an appointment as one of the Members at Large. Having lost the election, I could choose to nurse the wounds of defeat, or I could accept the invitation to join my competitors and offer my skills for the betterment of the school. I accepted and the Council accomplished quite a number of significant things that year – several of which came through my influence. 

So what did I learn from the failed leadership bid? You can lead in many ways, and not necessarily only from being in the number one position.  I wasn’t the School President, but I was able to influence people to adopt and move forward my ideas. I also learned that authentic leadership requires the virtue of humility. The willingness to serve and work to accomplish great things without accolades is at the heart of a virtuous leader. So much can be accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit. And I learned that leadership involves perseverance – that I needed to continue to step out and be willing to lead, even if I had failed in the past. 

Sometimes opportunities for leadership come to you and they may be welcomed. For example, your supervisor asks you to coordinate an event that you truly enjoy and are passionate about. But other times opportunities for leadership come to you and may be less welcomed. For example, a crisis situation that you have to deal with that makes you think, “This isn’t want I signed up for.” These are opportunities to grow and learn as a leader.

However, more often than not, one needs to take initiative. Leaders are initiators. Stepping up to offer one’s service as a leader will be a school of learning leadership. And it is not only in the big projects, events or activities. It’s also small moments of leadership – seeing someone’s need and stepping up to offer help, or seeing a problem and being willing to try and fix it. 

To be an initiator exercises the virtue of courage. It’s easy to just leave things the way they are or to let someone else deal with problems.  But true leaders, virtuous leaders, see and seize opportunities.  They exercise a magnanimous response by taking a risk, a step out, a courageous initiative, and by doing this they learn how to be a great leader.  So if you want to grow as a leader, lead something.  Don’t just stand on the sidelines.  Get in the game!

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