Growing Leaders Through Experiences

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I learn. Involve me and I remember.
— Benjamin Franklin

I read a quote by Ben Franklin the other day and it really got me thinking about life.  He said, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I learn. Involve me and I remember." Ben's quote made me think about how much time I let pass quickly by when I have not intentionally given those I'm leading the opportunity to gain experiences, even experiences that may push them outside of their comfort zone. I also thought how many experiences when those who have led me went without intentionally asking if I could be included in order for me to gain knowledge through the experience.

I think we deceive ourselves a lot of times by thinking that we are doing enough to impact people. I know that I can sometimes allow moments to pass by where I could have made a greater impact by sharing an experience with someone or allowing them to experience a situation with me.  Sometimes I would include them, but then I wouldn't follow through with a debrief and have as much impact on them as I could have.  Why didn't I act?  Why did I choose not to?  Was it fear of looking weird or of rejection?  Was it because I was in too much of a hurry and knew all the things on my plate that needed to get done?  Were my priorities in the right order at that time?  I don't think so.

From my experience and from the knowledge that I have gained by reading and studying leadership, I think that there are a couple of prerequisites to doing this well: first, to open our eyes to see the opportunities to take action; and second, asking ourselves, "How do we make an impact that will allow a person to really learn, that is, to retain the message or skill that we are trying to teach them for the long haul?"

Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap wrote a book called Deep Smarts. By definition, "Deep smarts are a potent form of expertise based on first-hand life experiences, providing insights drawn from tacit knowledge, and shaped by beliefs and social forces...Deep smarts cannot be attained through formal education alone, but they can be deliberately nourished and grown and, with dedication, transferred or recreated."  Deep smarts is the knowledge that we know through our life experiences, school learning and our observations.  It is more active learning than passive learning. "We cannot afford to leave the accumulation of deep smarts to chance and random experience.  Rather, we need to be purposeful in our approach."  I can't agree more that we need to first see the opportunities for us to share an experience with a person we have the privilege to lead and then determine how to best transfer that experience to them.   

Reprinted from Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005).

Reprinted from Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005).

The book goes on to describe a stepping process where the follower observes you in action in a certain situation (I would call this the “backseat" or "observer” who is just along for the ride).  After the observation, you come back and do a postmortem to discuss what happened, determine what was good and bad, and then the follower has the opportunity to ask any questions concerning the event, including the intrinsic feelings that the leader had during the event.  Following this, the follower will begin studying the situation in books and other materials. 

When another opportunity arises, the leader pulls the follower in again and they talk through the plan of how they are going to go through the situation, describing what you normally may only do in your head in most instances.  Once you’ve done this, you both go into the situation and the follower has a small part in it (I would call this the "co-pilot”).  You come back once again and do a postmortem to discuss and learn from each other. 

During the next opportunity, the follower now takes the lead and the leader then becomes the observer. You are ready to step in if needed, but should only be there to assist as necessary and only to gain knowledge that you will discuss with your follower when you do your postmortem. This type of learning takes time. It takes intentionality to remember to bring one of your followers with you to learn.  It takes a belief in this type of knowledge-sharing, trusting that it will make a significant impact in your follower's life. By going through exercises like this, your follower will not only gain specific knowledge, but will begin to gain an intuition to make decisions more efficiently and effectively on their own.  They begin to be able to connect this deep experience with others that they are having to deepen their ability to make smart decisions. If you have a couple minutes, this link tells about how NASA applies the Deep Smarts practice when they discovered that they needed to be more intentional due to their workforce moving toward retirement: 

I think it is amazing how Ben Franklin said it so plainly so long ago, but how quickly we forget the importance of passing on our deep smarts to those that follow us.  It is by passing on deep smarts that leaders in our organizations will grow and sustain an organization for a hundred years.  It is by passing on deep smarts to our sons, our daughters, and our grandkids that will empower them to be more successful and have more impactful lives.  

Share Experiences - New River Gorge.jpg

The next opportunity that I have is a trip with my son to the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, WV, along with my brother, Dave and some of his boys. Don't get me wrong, Dave and I are going to have an amazing time bouldering, hiking, whitewater rafting, camping and just having a great time together with our boys. But more than that, we are going to intentionally share stories from our own life experiences with our boys – experiences that are filled with life lessons. We’ll be telling stories to our high school seniors (soon to be heading out from under our roofs) in order that maybe they won't make as many mistakes as Dave and I did and, even more importantly, that they will make an even bigger impact in people's lives than we have.  I hope that this time of sharing will let them know that we are definitely not perfect, that we've made mistakes, but that we’ve tried to learn from them. I hope that through these conversations a deeper level of trust is built that will open up a line of communication between our boys and us so that when they get into a situation, that they will call upon us as a place of counsel.  I think this is just one of the many benefits of sharing deep smarts. 

I challenge you to think about how you could pass on your deep smarts to those you have an opportunity to lead: at work, at home and in the many organizations that you are involved in. On the flip side, I challenge you as followers to look for opportunities to ask to get involved so that you create an opportunity for you to learn.  It is only by being intentional that we will be able to be effective in sharing and gaining experiences.  Will you be intentional this week? This month?