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Top Three Ways to Gain Leadership Lessons

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I wrote a book a few years back titled What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. It’s one of my favorite books and if you haven’t read it, I hope you will. It contains my biggest leadership lessons, gleaned from nearly 40 years of leadership.

But how do you truly gain a leadership lesson?

The short answer is easy. Most leadership lessons are learned from a failure or challenge of some kind. You shoulder your way through it and, in hindsight, learn lessons you will carry with you for a lifetime.

Or that’s the way it should work. I say “should” because we’ve all seen people who never seem to learn, no matter what they go through. They repeat the same mistakes over and over.

So how do you truly gain leadership lessons that serve you from points of failure or challenge? How do you learn from what you’ve gone through in life? Here are three principles I’ve learned… which means, they’re part of my leadership lessons gained.

1. Own Your Mistakes

The first and most important dynamic to gaining any kind of leadership lesson is to have the humility to own what you did wrong instead of simply catering to a victim mentality. If it is always someone else’s fault, or something that happened to you, then you will never even feel there is a leadership lesson to gain.

If you have a tendency to never think the problem is in the room – meaning, that the issue at hand may be something you did or didn’t do – then you will never gather leadership lessons along the road of life. The key is having the humility to always start with yourself and ask what you could have done differently that would have changed things for the better.

I can honestly say that the most important leadership lessons I’ve gained over the course of my life, the ones that have served me the most time and again, came as a result of failure on my part. I simply handled things poorly, reacted badly or made foolish decisions. The worst thing I could have possibly done – following what was already an epic fail – was to refuse to admit what I had done wrong. The most important thing was to humbly own how I could have handled things so much better.

And nail down what that “better” was.

One final word on this: exercising this humility and searching for what you did wrong will be the hardest when there was bad behavior and poor decision making on the part of others. When there is a sense that you were mistreated or victimized, the temptation is to see the entire affair solely from that point of view. Don’t fall prey to that.

2. Look for Patterns

A true leadership lesson is something that can operate as a future principle for your life. In other words, it is born from observing certain patterns of cause and effect and then making changes to create a new, successful pattern.

For example, if you look back on staff hires made out of expediency (hiring without following a more careful and patient process) that ended in train wrecks, you learn not to hire out of expediency no matter how tempted you may be at the time.

If you turn a blind eye to a seemingly small “staff infection” that suddenly morphs into a “pandemic,” you learn to attend to the smallest of staff infections before they become contagious.

If you observe that vision “leaks” – whether among your staff or congregation – then you learn to cast vision repeatedly.

If you’ve hired staff who checked the boxes of character and competence but they just don’t mesh with your staff DNA, you learn to ensure there’s good chemistry before you bring someone into your leadership circle.

If you see, time and again, that your best staff members come from “hiring from within,” you learn to always look to volunteer leaders when filling a new staff role.

These are just some of the ways leadership lessons can come from observable patterns of cause and effect.

3. Learn from Tested Leaders

The final way to make sure you gain true leadership lessons is to pick them up from people who have proven themselves to be solid leaders over the course of a long leadership run. Of leadership books there is no end, but of leadership books by actual, successful leaders—those are gold. I recently finished a book by Robert Iger, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. In his review and recommendation of the book, Bill Gates wrote: “I don’t read many books about how to run a business. In my experience, it is rare to find one that really captures what it’s like to build and operate an organization or that has tips you could really put into practice.”

But it is not simply leadership books you look for, but leaders themselves. I’ve seldom heard of a seasoned leader turning down a younger leader who made this kind of ask: “I would like just 30 minutes of your time. I will not waste it. I will come prepared with very specific questions I would like to ask. You will not have to prepare in any way. I simply want to tap into the leadership lessons you’ve gained and would be willing to pass along.”

Why don’t more do this? I’m not sure. A few years ago, I wrote a blog musing about the various reasons that could be in play. You can read it HERE. The point is to learn all you can from those you can truly learn from.

If you will pursue these three avenues – look for and then own your mistakes, seek out patterns of cause and effect, and gain insight and wisdom from tested leaders – you will begin to gain leadership lessons that will serve you over the course of a lifetime.


James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

Bill Gates, “A Business Book I’d Actually Recommend,” GatesNotes, May 18, 2020, read online.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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