Thought Leadership

Learning Leadership from Life Experience

We don’t think of some of our significant life events as stories in the moment. It’s just life happening. It’s only later, with the benefit of hindsight and reflection, that we shape experiences into stories and recognize the lessons. Effective leaders generate resilience when they are able to extract insights, particularly from a challenge, and apply them to another situation in the future, according to Kellogg’s Michelle Buck, who teaches in such Executive Education offerings as Leading for Impact within Family Enterprise and the Women's Senior Leadership Program. “You always want to learn and grow,” she said. “When you find yourself in a new situation, true leadership involves the capacity to recognize that although the circumstances of the scenario are new, you may be able to address the situation using insights from past experiences.”

In the ELP, Buck asks participants to come up with the most important lessons they’ve learned from various life experiences and from people in their lives: good and bad bosses, as well as people outside of work and school, such as grandparents, coaches, mentors and other friends or relations. “The lessons they’ve learned can be about themselves, about leadership or about how life works,” she said. “Some people can immediately articulate it. For others, it’s more challenging to do at first.”

Buck presents her own story as a way to help others get started. After graduate school, she planned to be a professor of psychology, not business. She only accepted a two-year postdoctoral teaching position at a business school because she thought she could use the experience of teaching negotiations back in the field of psychology. In fact, her advisors told her it would be safer to turn down the Kellogg position and stay in psychology. “When they said ‘safe,’ that pressed my buttons,” she said. “I didn’t want to be safe for the sake of being safe. I was not familiar with the research happening in business schools, but I eventually fell in love with the organizational focus. Ultimately, the business-school path which I thought I’d adamantly refuse turned out to be not just a viable job, but a calling. That taught me to be open to life experiences. You never know what opportunities and insights may be available. This taught me to advise others that no matter what job you go into, look for the learning. There may be opportunities you can’t even imagine right now. Never say never. Be open.”

That never-say-never wisdom applies to the learning experience itself, Buck added. The leadership skill that can be developed over time, with reflection and practice, is to identify lessons that didn’t seem like lessons at the time. Once that’s internalized, it also helps with honing resilience skills, which are one of the differentiators of leaders who generate extraordinary impact in their field. “One of the ways to fuel resilience when facing adversity is to learn from what’s happened,” she said. “When you find meaning in that, it helps you to continue moving forward.” When leaders share their lessons learned, they also empower others by role modeling the ability to learn from challenges.

Life experience. Everyone has it, but with facilitated reflection in programs such as the ELP, people can pull out insights they might not otherwise have seen on their own. “I’ve had so many people say they don’t have interesting stories,” Buck said. “But when they get going, they realize they have many of them, and they’ve learned a lot from what they’ve experienced. They just never thought of them that way before.”

Michelle Buck is Clinical Professor of Leadership at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She previously served as the School's first Director of Leadership Initiatives from 2006 to 2013, designing and coordinating opportunities for personal leadership development to complement the School's academic curriculum. She has also served as academic director of numerous Kellogg executive programs, including partnership programs with Fundacao dom Cabral in Brazil as well as customized company-specific programs.

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