Learning leadership lessons can be painful

This week, I was delivered a powerful lesson which I am still trying to make sense of. It has prompted me to think deeply and broadly about the way in which leadership lessons can be conveyed.

Sometimes teachers come in the strangest guises: a person we despise, a political election, a random conversation, an uncomfortable, difficult or even painful experience – or in my case – a Facebook response to a blog post I published.

You have a choice when lessons come knocking on your door – to reject, attack, defend or deflect – or you can choose to take on the lesson, regardless of how difficult it is to experience. Sometimes you just gotta swallow the bitter pill, no matter how unpleasant the taste.

At the same time, I don’t think we can rush learning. It is not something to be quickly pushed past. Lessons won’t be diverted. That uncomfortable ‘in between’ state – that murky, foggy, difficult stage of downright unknowing is a necessary growth process in leadership. Sometimes the real lesson doesn’t show itself for a long time – in some cases, many years later. At times, it never does. Occasionally I’m finding, there just ain’t no lesson. It just is.

Insight and epiphanies are not always love and lightness. More often than not, they are messy and difficult. It’s more pain, tears and bruised knees than rainbows.

So be kind to yourself as you learn your leadership lessons. But seek the gold nugget in the harsh initiation nevertheless. Seek the wisdom – even when it’s delivered in an unskilled way or when hurt, anger or incompetent communication muddies the clarity of delivery.

Be kind to others if you are the teacher – knowing we are all trying our best with what we have. Be compassionate – we ALL learn and we ALL stumble. Courage takes different forms. My dad always led first with compassion and rarely with judgement. He always urged me to put myself in the other person’s shoes.

For me, my lesson was delivered by two people (and many others whom I’ll never know) who I was trying to honour and whom I hurt and disrespected in my blind and naive attempts to help. So to Rebecca and Krista – thank you.

Here are the lessons they are teaching me:

I am learning it’s not enough just to have good intentions.

I am learning (again) that I need to continue to seek to understand way more than I think I need to.

I am learning that when I make a mistake, it’s important to say I’m sorry and that when I stuff up, it’s imperative I do what I can to rectify the situation and to make amends.

I am learning I have more to learn about what real leadership is all about. The more I learn, the more I know I need to learn.

I am learning it is important to understand all of our differences, as well as the ways in which we are similar as human beings.

I am learning it’s important to allow people to share their perspective and to listen- especially when it’s difficult for me to hear.

I am still learning humility.

And although my ego is smarting from an ass whipping via social media, I’m swallowing my medicine and I am grateful to two people who I will probably never meet for making me stop and think and question.

I am learning one of the greatest lessons – to look in the mirror, before I look through the window.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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