Imagine learning to swim by reading a book – would you really be surprised when you find yourself drowning? Yet, library shelves are filled with leadership manuals, each offering to guide those in search of such holy grail by explaining what they should be doing differently to be a leader. If the written word is not your learning medium of choice, you can also participate in leadership seminars, where you can spend a couple of days in a magnificently air conditioned conference room listening to the sound of someone’s voice.
Both options will leave you powerless, with checklists of actionable items that you likely won’t know how or when to implement. Because if you’ve never experienced what it feels like to be submerged in water, how could you possibly understand how or when you should move.
Now imagine learning to swim by taking actual lessons in a pool. You might not enjoy exposing most of yourself to the chill of the water, but you will adapt and acclimate to it; you’ll learn how long you can hold your breath; you’ll discover the sweet pleasure of gliding above the surface. And in time, you’ll be able to teach others those same things.
That is what experiential leadership is: learning by doing – discovering how fast you can adapt, what your limits are, and how you react to challenges. For the journey to leadership is first and foremost a journey to the full discovery of oneself, and this method is the only one to take into account each person as the unique human they are.
Unlike the lectures and books crowd, people who have experienced leadership through safe, structured simulations offer mesmerizing insights into how effortlessly they apply lessons learned in the activity into their actual life – because they are not trying to remember a to-do item from some checklist. Instead, they are able to recognize how a situation feels, they can think back to what they have done right or wrong in the simulation, and they can adapt their behavior to achieve their intended outcome.
Leadership, like most useful skills in life, is not based on something you can memorize and recite later, nor is it a discipline that can be measured by standardized tests. However, experiential leadership irrefutably is the kind of discipline that can be learned through continuous self-assessment, peer-to-peer feedback, and guided practice.
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