Several aspects influence whether people learn from experiences in order to become a better leader. These variables can either be personal traits of the individual learner or situational aspects of the circumstances. Both personal and situational variables of experiential learning increase the development of leaders.
Being exposed to experiences does not necessarily mean that people learn from them. There are some personal attributes necessary to foster learning from experiences in order to develop one’s leadership potential. The main variable that influences experiential learning is the capacity and practice of self-reflection. Being able to draw lessons from experiences is indeed what drives leadership development and self-reflection increases the number of lessons noticed in each experience. Furthermore, experiences that are challenging promote learning. How challenging an experience is can be seen as situational, however it is also personal as some people are more drawn to challenging experiences than others. Additionally, motivation to learn increases experiential leadership development. Whether the learning is motivated through goals, actions, or to simply seek knowledge, motivation influences leadership development.
In addition to being reflective, motivated, and challenged, experiential learners also need to think and act. Thinking is important because it allows the learning to plan and strategize. Finally, acting is one of the most critical aspects of learning, because it closes the cycle of learning and creates the next cycle of experiential learning.
Furthermore, assessments bring a deep level of self-awareness about their behavioral and thinking patterns, behaviors, and preferences. Knowing what one does well, where one can improve, and where the developmental gaps are is essential for leadership development. The experience with assessment is both a personal and situational variable, because how people are rated or rate themselves depends on the situation and on the personality of the person being rated. Finally, vicarious learning is learning through other people’s experiences. However, not everyone who witness other people’s leadership challenges, solutions, and behaviors develop their own leadership skills. Therefore, this is both a situational and personal variable as a person needs to be motivated to learn but also needs access to a vicarious learning opportunity.
Some of the factors that influence learning from experiences are situational. This means that people have to be in a specific type of situation in order to not merely experience something but to increase their leadership effectiveness based on that experience. Experiences in themselves are situational; for the most part one cannot make certain experiences happen but they happen to people instead. However, there are three specific aspects of employment that people can seek that foster situational learning opportunities. The first one is getting a new job, changing job status, or job location. There is a tremendous amount of experiential learning that takes place when one of these aspects of a current job changes. The second is a change in task-related characteristics, such as a process or systems change. Thirdly, obstacles increase learning. Such obstacles can be difficult supervisors or employees, another company launching a similar program, or a crisis. All these experiences promote learning because jobs are central in leadership development, as well as, different assignments and experience with obstacles.
Support is an additional situational variable that increases learning. Support promotes learning because it makes people feel reassured and safe. Feeling safe also increases learners’ motivation, competency, and self-efficacy, which all promotes learning. Additionally narrative accounts shared by leaders and the organization promotes learning from experience, even if the narratives are fictional. Hearing stories about effective and ineffective leadership increases listeners’ own leadership skills through cognitive elaboration and transportation. Finally, allowing people to experience the consequences of decisions increases their learning and develop their leadership potential. Experiencing the consequences will increase people’s understanding of the impact of decisions and how departments and tasks are interconnected.
People learn in many different ways, but we all go through experiences, whether they happen to people directly, through vicarious learning, or through narratives. The better leaders can maximize learning from experiences, the more prepared the next generation of leaders will be to tackle challenges, dilemmas, and problems.
-Lotte Mulder earned her Master’s of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2013, where she focused on Leadership and Group Development. She’s currently working toward a PhD in Organizational Leadership. At ASCP, Lotte designs and facilitates the ASCP Leadership Institute, an online leadership certificate program. She has also built ASCP’s first patient ambassador program, called Patient Champions, which leverages patient stories as they relate to the value of the lab.