Advance Your Leadership Journey

Excerpt from モPearls of Leadership Wisdom: Lessons for Everyday Leadersヤ by Sandra Davis, Ph.D. (MDA Leadership Consulting, 2012).

By Sandra Davis, Ph.D.

Pearl 1: The Leader You Will Be Tomorrow Is Not the Leader You Are Today

Great leaders are on a “leadership journey.” They learn, grow, evolve, develop, and find new ways to lead in an ever-evolving leadership environment. While the oft-heard expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” may subtly tempt us to opt out of active learning, we have an enormous capacity to change and develop. Becoming a better leader tomorrow means proactively striving to do so.

Ideas for Action

While it may seem tough to find time to be intentional about learning, we know practice makes perfect for leadership effectiveness, just as it does for anything worth doing well. Every day we have the chance to learn, if we just take it. Look at the events, interactions, conversations, and meetings you will encounter in the next week. How can you tackle them in a new way, rather than just relying on what may have worked (or not) in the past?

Consider creating a meaningful and compelling leadership development plan, focused on one or two areas for growth. Base one of the areas on a strength and find new ways to use it; make the second area something outside of your “comfort zone” that will help you stretch and grow. Write down and share your goals to increase your likelihood of success. One leader we know consistently writes down what she has leaned and how she will apply it in the future.  

You can advance your leadership journey by making your learning intentional and opportunistic. Here’s to the leader you will be tomorrow!

Pearl 20: Practice Makes Perfect

Are great leaders born or made? While we know that some aspects of personality, drive, and intellectual ability are hardwired and a prerequisite to great leadership, in reality no one becomes a great leader without experience and practice. Just as athletic or artistic talent comes alive with practice, so, too, does leadership. I have seen many executives advance their careers by making significant changes in their leadership approaches. Conversely, I’ve watched other executives grow stagnant by relying solely on what’s worked in the past. But given the increasing complexity of our business world, every leader needs to embrace ongoing development and practice.

Ideas for Action

Leadership practice begins with intentionality and a commitment to improve on a regular basis. I recall hearing from Steve Uzzell, a former National Geographic photographer, how capturing the ultimate nature image requires preparation, research, and opportunity. He quoted Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Like many things in life, unless you prepare, you won’t know what to do when opportunity knocks.

As reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers at University College London found that it took, on average, 66 days of daily practice before a desired behavior became automatic. While they found that skipping single days wasn’t detrimental in the long run, early repetitions delivered the greatest boost in automaticity, before it eventually leveled off and became a habit.

To improve your odds of enhancing your leadership abilities through practice, create a personalized development plan. Divide it into sections: individual goals (self-improvement), team goals (relationship improvement), and organizational goals (organizational impact). Then, determine what you’ll practice to achieve your goals. For instance: “I will be more open to new ideas and ask for more details before making a decision,” or “I will contribute a new idea at each division meeting.” You get the idea.

Solicit ideas for practice from your manager, peers, and direct reports. They will have ideas you may not have thought of and simply asking engages them in your ongoing development. As you progress, routinely ask the same people for feedback to ensure you’re on the right track in what you are practicing. The surest way to repeat bad habits is to assume you don’t need any help learning new habits.

Pearl 30: The Rewards of Reflection

If I were to say to you, “Tell me about a time when you learned the most about leadership,” you likely would relate an experience. It might be a “first” or a “best” or a “worst,” but you would have a story to tell.

Your stories and your experiences create your own pearls of leadership wisdom. Yet these pearls remain hidden until you think about them. “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience,” said the late psychologist John Dewey. A few moments of reflection or meditation every day can give you the insights to grow and change.

Ideas for Action

Even if you’re not the reflective type, you can quickly learn. I was recently on an executive coaching panel at a professional conference with David Peterson of Google. Peterson, who has written extensively about coaching, extolled the power of reflection and suggested four basic tasks of reflection:

  1. To look inward (what am I trying to accomplish?)
  2. To look outward (what matters to others?)
  3. To look back (what new things have I tried?)
  4. To look ahead (what will I do differently?).

That’s it.

There’s sound science behind the practice. Physiologically, according to brain researcher James D. Zull, deep learning arises naturally from the structure of the brain itself. He points out that reflection engages the brain to search for connections—literally—to achieve comprehension. “Even if we experience something, it is hard to make meaning of it unless it engages our emotions,” Zull says. Reflection is particularly important when trying a new skill or having a new experience.

Afterward, whether you simply think about the experience or write it down, you begin practicing the type of introspection that’s characteristic of some of the world’s greatest thinkers—and its greatest leaders! Above all, reflection gives credence to the most important voice in your daily affairs: your own. As the late Steve Jobs counseled graduates in his famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Take some time today to reflect, to hear your inner voice, and to learn.

Excerpt from “Pearls of Leadership Wisdom: Lessons from Everyday Leaders” by Sandra Davis, Ph.D. (MDA Leadership Consulting, 2012). For more information, visit

Sandra Davis, Ph.D., is CEO of MDA Leadership Consulting in Minneapolis, a leadership development, talent assessment, and organizational performance firm she co-founded in 1981. Davis specializes in senior executive talent evaluation, CEO selection, and succession planning and is widely known an executive coach and thought leader in the industry, counting numerous Fortune 500 firms among her clients. She is the author of “Reinventing Yourself: Life Planning After 50” and “Pearls of Leadership Wisdom: Lessons from Everyday Leaders.” She was elected a fellow of both the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the American Psychological Association.

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