Learning from Success is One of the rare Leadership Characteristics

In this article I want to have a look at one of the more important leadership characteristics: learning from experience.



If you accept the spirit of the well known quote from JF Kennedy “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

Then good leaders should be good learners one of the particulary useful leadership characteristics in changing times.

I wonder how effective many leaders are in learning from their experiences?

We do hear a lot about learning from failure but what about learning from success?
Are our leaders really clear about the reasons for success?
You would like to think so I think if you want to see a repetition of this success in the future.
However there is compelling evidence that many leaders are both stretched and busy and somewhat focused on the urgent issues and fixing defects. Little time for reflection there!
So suddenly learning from a range of experiences (successes and failures) becomes one of the leadership characteristics that support adaptive flexibility in the leader and the organisation. Are we doomed only to pay attention and collect the learning’s and insights when we fail? If you adopt the view that leadership and adaptive learning are strongly related then

A misunderstood success is a leadership as well as a learning failure


By not reviewing systematically we are effectively breeding the possibility of future failure

More on useful leadership characterisitics

Let us assume that the leader does take the time to think about what has gone well and why. Another consideration might be around the quality of the leaders judgments about what has generated success. Can we consider them to be accurate and realistic?

Well uh the answer is for the most part "NO"

Much research seems to indicate that as leaders we tend to over-estimate our impact and give more credit too our talents then is warranted.
We are also more likely as leaders to give less credence to things outside our control like for example luck or other external factors like the economy or market changes.

Of course being successful does tend to fuel our self-confidence.Now higher self -confidence can be a great facilitator of learning but not in all cases.


We have talked elsehwere on this website about how the quality of our thinking impacts on our feelings, behaviours and results. When we feel we have been successful we are much more likely to affirm our existing believes and actions. or to put it another way we rationalise our behaviour which in turn reinforces our existing behaviours so we don’t need to change anything. This unwillingness to learn is one of the more common leadership characteristics I come across in senior leaders

Recent research from the University of Washington confirms this view. Confidence is considered to be one of the useful leadership characteristics. However when we feel confident we tend to place more weight on own opinions as compared with others.


Think about how higher confidence could encourage a leader to talk more thereby missing out on listening and uncovering critical information that was hidden.

Also another one of our less helpful leadership characteristics is our tendancy to focus our thinking attention on the "the squeaky wheel" We like to problem solve and deconstruct issues in order to beter understand them and solve them. And if we don't do that then at least we will spend some time worrying about problems. All this focus on issues leaves little time or perceived benefit for reviewing the causes of good performance.

So as with many things realising that not reviewing successes is akin to leaving money on the table we need more easy systematic approaches in order to review our activities.

So action learning approaches, after action reviews (used by the military) and 6 sigma can be helpful disciplines in testing the assumptions about what is needed to achieve great performance.

If learning and leadership are to support each other then we need to foster the right leadership characteristics of relection and make sure our leaders have the right systems and tools to effectively (without bias) review their experiences and performance.

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