Mastering Leadership through Experience

leadership Nov 08, 2023
leader experience - leadership

An organisation will appoint a leader who can demonstrate to the board their capability for a particular organisational context defined by that board.

For example, an organisation in start-up mode will seek a leader with experience in start-up organisations. An organisation in a mature environment will seek a leader with experience in handling situations, issues, challenges, and opportunities common to mature organisations. An organisation with consistent, complex, and impactful industrial relations issues will seek a leader with relevant experience to suit.

The concept of experience is so broad that it is impossible to find someone who has a high-level of experience in everything; that is, someone who can lead every and any organisation.

That means that the needed experience is defined by the application of that experience to that specific need. That you are a very experienced table tennis player doesn’t mean that you have the necessary experience to run a government department.

Similarly, just because an experienced leader has experience in the specific context of the organisation, doesn’t mean that they don’t need additional skills.

For example, and using the previous context, a leader of a large organisation who is experienced in industrial relations does not mean that other skills aren’t required. In this example, the leader also needs financial, people, marketing, sales, etc., skills to be successful in their role. Being experienced in industrial relations, by itself, is normally insufficient to successfully lead the organisation and satisfy its objectives.

Sometimes “leader’s experience” implies experience in leading people and/or an organisation. This again is context specific. Being a leader of a sports team is not the same as being the leader of a 5.000-staff mining company in a foreign country. Context and relevance matters.

Much like the a previous blog on leader’s maturity, there are multiple dimensions of experience that contribute to valuable, relevant, and usable experience in the leader.

As a generalisation, organisational leadership needs to have experienced (and have “mastered”) and applied risk-taking, flexibility, creativity, patience,  trustworthiness, dynamic listening, empathy, reliability and dependability, effective communications, team building and management, and the ability to solve problems and coach others.

It’s important too to note that in the same way that leaders have relevant and valuable experience in specific areas, they will encounter situation where they have no context. How a leader responds to situations where they have and don’t have experience provides a valuable insight to the leader’s mindset and effectiveness.

When we speak of a leader’s experience, we imply that the leader has fit-for-purpose experience. As we’ve just seen, the organisational context will define the scope of organisational or industry-specific experience required. However, there are certain fundamental capabilities a leader must be experience in to enable effective operations, people management, and cultural robustness.

These common experience-dependent attributes include:

1. Effective decision-making and problem-solving – experience should have taught the leader how to modify their decision-making “style” to suit the organisation, the people, the context, and the need. This might inform the leader when to be decisive, when to ask for more evidence, when to ask others for their views, and so on.

Ideally, a leader might have experience in all dimensions of decision-making, and as a result, knows what works, what doesn’t and has adjusted their own approach to make better decisions. They easily recognise when an urgent decision is required or when more time is available to gather more information.

2. A values, ethics, morality, integrity, and legality framework – it’s “easy” having a standard for each of these. It’s much harder having experienced the need to defend the framework and deal with breaches of each aspect – often simultaneously.

Such experience is very important and valued. Not that one necessarily expects a breach, but breaches will occur, and such breaches can have huge impacts on the organisation, its reputation, and its people. Understanding the management implications in each of these areas significantly augments capability.

Similarly, organisations that extoll certain values or ways of thinking, value a leader with demonstrated experience in thinking that way. As an example, customer focus is more than the mere words – it has a huge impact on culture, systems, way of thinking, reward, customer satisfaction, and so on. Similarly, an immoral leader will see immorality permeate through the organisation.

3. Trust – a leader who hasn’t experienced mistrust or a lack of trust, doesn’t fully appreciate the importance and power of being trusted – and it’s two-way.

4. Emotional control - most people, leaders included, have experienced the ramifications of “losing it”; of displaying one’s emotions when the preferred reaction would have been not to succumb to such a loss of self-control.

Again, a leader who hasn’t experienced this, (not necessarily of losing it themselves,) and seen the damage that it can cause, will not fully appreciate an attitude of calmness, control, respect, and civility.

An organisation with a large staff compliment will have emotional responses seen regularly. Experience in handling it is invaluable.

Also note the importance and value of handling this in a multi-cultural context. There are some cultures where the display of emotions is frowned upon, while in others, such a display is common and acceptable.


  1. Observe your own leadership – are the issues things you have previously experienced? What remedies were used in the past and how did they turn out?
  2. If people inside or outside the organisation are challenging you, are the issues familiar? Try to understand the trigger and how you pressed it. What else could you have done in that context? Discuss the other people’s issues so that you understand them better. Is it a skill issue, a familiarity issue, or something intrinsic to you?
  3. What steps have you taken to understand your lack of experience in some areas?
  4. What steps have you taken to compensate for your lack of experience in some areas?
  5. As for previous chapters, keep a notebook and record those issues or problem with which you have had little to no experience. Reflect on these and explore different options and their implications.
  6. Network with people in the areas that you lack.
  7. Find an external mentor with whom you can discuss those areas where you feel your experience is lacking.
  8. Undertake self-study and/or training in the areas where you lack experience.
  9. Form internal teams to work on problem in which you lack experience then get experienced input on the team’s recommendations.


If you have or suspect negative responses to these issues, then your leadership or the leadership of others may be compromised.

Do you want to know more? Then call us at [email protected]

We’re proud to advise that the authors of this piece are Advisory & Mentoring directors.

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