Leadership is a learning process

There are a couple of traps set for emerging leaders, and they are shadows of each other. On the one hand, imposter syndrome, or self-doubt. Much has been written on this subject, particularly in the context of senior women executives, and it’s one I’ll certainly come back to another day. On the other, a closed mindset, or the assumption now that you’ve reached this position you are necessarily right all of the time. I know you’ve worked for people with this attitude!

Neither gives due consideration to the notion of continuous improvement, and to leadership itself as a learning process. Often you attain a senior position because (presumably) you’re extremely high achieving in your chosen profession, and that will be through consistent learning and improvement. On no account should that learning process stop now you’re in a senior role – more likely, a new curve is just getting started. In precious few cases is a future leader identified early enough for that particular skill set to be honed over time, such that you’re the complete article at appointment. More commonly, you find yourself in the boss’ seat and have to work it out from there. Too often I’ve seen the high achievers on paper perform poorly in leadership, because suddenly a whole new skill set is called for and they’ve forgotten to reset their expectations about how much there is still to learn.

There’s something really positive in here for people in more junior roles and with great intentions to progress. If your ambition points you to a senior role, then take the time early on to discover what are the key skills you will need to be great at it - not just how to get there - and seek opportunities to practice and refine those skills as you progress your career, with the huge advantage that it’s much safer to make mistakes earlier on. Note: these will not be the same skills that got you this far!

Already in that coveted senior role? Create your toolkit so that you avoid the pitfalls. Here’s a short checklist:

-         Risk: blind spots.

Where are you getting feedback from? How often, from whom, and how have you used it? This is much talked-about but seldom applied effectively.

-         Risk: stagnating in your learning.

What’s on your own development plan this year? Not just that of your direct reports and their teams. Use your coach to help you identify blocks and devise solutions.

-         Risk: self-importance.

Where are your role models? Regularly refresh your perspective on what great looks like. Obviously this might require input from outside your own organisation.

-         Risk: complacency. Create a small network of mentors – no matter the level you are at. Remember that reverse mentors are hugely valuable too.


“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”      

Abigail Adams