Leading Well is Living Well

Leading Well Is Living Well

How to extract wisdom from experience is a critical skill for any leader.

 Date Published: April 3, 2017

By Brett Bourbon, Ph.D. 

Business writers have an unfortunate tendency to write about the three L’s of leadership, the five C’s of storytelling, the n X’s of whatever. Such gimmicky approaches to complex business tasks and roles give the illusion of content without the substance.  

Being told that one of the eight S's of surgery is to save the patient is good advice, but it won't help you become a better surgeon.

Let’s look at an example. We are told that one of the five C’s of storytelling is "creativity." Undoubtedly true. Inventing a good story requires creativity. Telling someone that, however, is as useful as recommending to someone who wants to do well in the long jump that it's important to jump far. True, but not helpful. Similarly, being told that one of the eight S’s of surgery is to save the patient is good advice, but it won’t help you become a better surgeon.

The problem is not just the obviousness of much of this advice. These prepackaged suggestions misconceive not only how we learn to do complex activities, they misunderstand what kind of activities leadership, storytelling and marketing are. The assumption is that such activities are skills that can be mastered with a handy list of things to do and work on. 

That is seldom the case. Leadership, for example, involves numerous variables. It is bound to particular cases and requires many talents, but it can also take many forms. There are some general principles of leadership, some good habits and a few heuristics. Leadership, however, needs to be understood as a practice, not a skill. Building a house is a practice; using a circular saw is a skill. Skills matter, but mastering the skills of using a carpenter's tools will not mean you've mastered the practice of building a house. And even more so with the strategic and operational challenges and responsibilities of leadership. 

A practice like leadership requires wisdom and judgment. One can develop these, perfect them even, but no list can give you a blueprint or recipe for leading well. 

Most importantly, a practice like leadership requires wisdom and judgment. One can develop these, perfect them even, but no list can give you a blueprint or recipe for leading well. And, even with wisdom and judgment, you can (and often will) fail. Success is never certain. That is part of the wisdom of leading.  

The education of a leader, therefore, must be an education in living, observing and thinking. It requires the virtues of courage and perseverance and a host of others. It requires self-awareness and an acuity in understanding others and complex situations. How to extract understanding and wisdom from your own experience is a critical skill for any leader. Leading well is ultimately living well.


Brett Bourbon

Brett Bourbon, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at the University of Dallas and a consultant with the Silicon Valley design firm Slanted Light. He will direct a new Master of Leadership program to be offered by the University of Dallas

Connect with Brett Bourbon on LinkedIn

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