Experiments in leadership: Why we fail

Experience plays a central role in learning. It teaches us to follow pathways that are better suited to success and avoid recourses that, based on experience, will likely lead to failure. Often overlooked, the role of failure during experiential learning is an important aspect for a leader to consider. Success is predicated as much on learning through failure as it is on recalling success.

The important contributions of Lewin, Dewey and Piaget show that learning is a process and not a series of outcomes. Experiential learning occurs through activities that allow us to interact with our environment, its many constraints and peculiarities. It teaches us how to resolve conflict. If a leader feels no stress or tension then there is most likely no stretch learning occurring.

For a leader to adapt to new environments, learning is a never-ending process. The knowledge that leaders gain through their successes and failures imparts better judgement to them and often also helps imbue a greater sense of purpose.

Like all learners, leaders also do better the next time around if they are able to learn through their prior experiences. Thus, after a relationship breakdown, they are able to better their interpersonal skills when they approach future partnerships. When they learn that ignoring specific constituencies leads to inequitable consequences, leaders learn to become more inclusive. As they fail to correctly gauge the drag that an institutional culture places upon the changes they wish to make they are able to alter their aspirations and strategies, or simply reflect and move on.

What relevance does this have for engineers and engineering students? Today’s engineers are hired not only for their technical proficiency, a “hard” skill, but equally for how they communicate, interact in diverse teams and act as independent leaders. These latter qualities in a graduate are often characterized as “soft” skills.

Paradoxically, “soft” is exceedingly hard and “hard” is actually very soft. Technical proficiency, a hard skill, is perishable.  While it can be mastered with the right academic prerequisites and curriculum, engineers who don’t use their disciplinary expertise regularly lose it in due course. On the other hand, soft skills such as proper writing, good communication, assimilating the shared values of an organization (and overcoming prejudice) are difficult to learn, but once acquired these are the life and learning lessons that are better retained.

Leadership coaches bolster confidence and say, “Trust in yourself.” Of course, leaders should do so, but only if they are also willing to learn both from their successes and failures.

We fail in order to learn. 

(Recommended reading: Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development by David A Kolb.)


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