It is noted (Mukunda, 2012) that some of the best leaders without much experience such as Steve jobs and Abraham Lincoln make a conspicuous figure with their distinctive decision-making, while competitors who own extensive experience may act just like the same as each other. Thus leads to an idea that the best leaders do not need experience. The essay will analyse the topic and figure out the relations between leadership and experience, exploring a better way of selecting great leaders. First of all, it will illustrate the important role of experience in improving leadership. Second, it is going to point out the fact that there is no absolute evidence to prove the necessity of little experience for great leaders, since quite a few experienced leaders achieve their outstanding success as well. Next, the reason why those relatively less-experienced leaders perform differently and better than some insiders will be exposed. Then it will indicate some invisible but valuable experience which those so called outsiders actually own, and further discusses which kind of experience a great leader should have. Finally, the essay is to make suggestions about how to promote and make a choice between those two kinds of leaders appropriately.
The Center for Creative Leadership (2012, cited by Brotherton, 2013) reported that 52% of C-Level executives take the view that experience creates a leader. Whether people believe that leaders are born or made, they never ignore the significant influence of experience to a great leader. On one hand, the common traits owned by great leaders such as sensing the situation and stress the difference are typically gained by process of learning from experience (Goffee and Jones, 2004). Faced with all sorts of challengeable situation, using critical thinking to find out the cause and effect of the problems and possible solutions undoubtedly will improve individual’s leadership skills. Working and observing over time, leaders will gradually acquire the ability to read individuals, teams and organizations so as to make them work more effectively. Derue and Wellman (2009) also state that there is a positive relationship between the developmental challenges of an experience and the leadership skill development that result from that experience. Usually, becoming a leader means one should grow from a specialist to a generalist which put forward a higher requirement of control over more integrated tasks and complex interpersonal relationships (Watkins, 2012).
At the first time, there is no specific way that suits everyone to deal with problems, so individuals need practices to figure it out. Failures and mistakes meanwhile are no more completely meaningless performance, but turn to be a feedback or a chance of learning from experience. By stressing the gap between the individuals’ current skills and the demand for the role of a competent leader, experience to a great extent encourage individuals to move forward (McCauley, 2001, cited by Derue and Wellman, 2004). And of course, nice attempts likewise give lessons to potential leaders, driving them evaluate as well as promote their behaviors. Additionally, different sorts of experience are certain to shape different leadership skills. For instance, taking high-risk positions benefits to responsibilities; negotiating with a large number of stakeholders surely trains interpersonal communication skills; and working with superiors and subordinates various from personalities to cultural backgrounds is in need of abilities to keep balance within organizations.
All of those with no doubt are closely connected with a successful leader, and although individuals can pick them up through training, experience is the most direct and effective way of doing so. On the other hand, since Handbury (2001, cited by Marsiglia, 2005) says that leaders are not just labeled by their leadership style but also by their individualities, experience seems to be a most significant factor that interacts with personalities either positively or negatively. Generally speaking, if a person has suffered from a tough situation, he tends to be pessimistic and skeptical; however, good experience is likely to bring confidence and decisiveness to an individual. Moreover, decisions which are made on the basis of one’s values that come from former experience will in turn leads to further consequences to reinforce those ideas. Take for example the former CEO of RBS, Fred Goodwin, who is known as a leader of individual heroism. His spirit of adventure and unyielding attitude won him a series of successful bank takeovers and a dominant position in the whole company.
Because of overconfidence accompanied with achievements and lack of negative past experience, he insisted on the purchase of ABN Amro regardless of all the questions and oppositions, which in the end turned out to be a fatal failure. It follows that experience do matter remarkably in making leaders, not only enriching them with skills but also shaping their characteristics. Since experience is a crucial part of developing leaders, many of best leaders certainly have benefited from a wealth of working and social experience. As one of the greatest president of American, alongside with Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly marched towards the top of political status through his struggle in politics for decades. Roosevelt started his political career as a New York senator and then became an assistant secretary of the navy, during which he worked with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who laid the foundation of his diplomatic thinking. Later on, Franklin’s being governor of New York provided him with great political leverage before he was elected president of US.
In addition, his experience in debating club at school and devotion into a large number of commercial ventures, have enormously contributed to Roosevelt’s outstanding eloquence as well as financial mind, which are extremely helpful to Roosevelt’s subsequent career. He is one of the best leaders and politicians growing up within the political system of America, and being cultivated in the specific field gave him enough capability to manage national affairs. Nevertheless, Franklin Roosevelt can never be the only example to prove the necessary connection between experience and leadership. As for the business field, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, is also an experienced insider end up as a preeminent leader in the world. He graduated from university with a Phd in chemical engineering, and joined General Electric after that. From a junior chemical engineer to a chairman and CEO, Welch not only obtain rich experience of management, but also deeply noticed the rigid managerial system of the old company.
When he finished the first task in GE, the unexpectedly bureaucratic system of reward and penalties almost forced him to leave the company. As he finally chose to stay there and stepped into management layer, past experience impelled Welch to pay much attention on reforming the bloated body and attracting promising talents. Through a series of radical change, General Electric reached its unprecedented boom. Jack Welch is famous for his extraordinary management methods, and entitled with the most respectable CEO. He saved General Electric with his unique management practice, which came from his personal experience range from the primary level to the senior. Both cases of Roosevelt and Welch strongly support the standpoint that extensive experience more or less will make a great leader. Obviously, best leaders are always analyzing the situation and learning from experience so that they can progress constantly. Then it comes to the question that why in some particular case, those relatively less-experienced leaders perform better than the experienced ones.
That can be observed from two aspects, the born traits and the drawback of experience. For one thing, it is proposed (Goffee, 2001) that according to the traits theory of leadership, developing great leaders presupposes they are born with right traits. Though it doesn’t follow the conclusion that traits determine a leader, the born characteristics performed by individuals actually have a great impact on their future paths. Leutner et al. (2014) report that the Big Five especially extraversion and agreeableness significantly predict entrepreneurial success. Those best leaders standing out often show some special personal traits which make up for their deficiency and ulteriorly bring tremendous advantages. Steve Jobs benefited from his insistence of perfectionism so that he was involved in every detail of products, while Lincoln’s kindness and integrity earned him the most respect to lead a war of morality and national interest. That both of the less-experienced leaders achieve their goals are not because the level of experience but more of their values towards work, for which they make great efforts different from others.
For another, experience sometimes could be obstacles. The Munkunda (2012) divides leaders into “filtered” and “unfiltered”, and he claimed that experience usually tend to hinder leaders from dealing with business situations any differently than other filtered individuals, namely experienced leaders. Like a double-edged sword, rich experience help leaders tackling affairs smoothly as offer them limited alternatives. Thus, similar decisions made by filtered people ultimately make leaders good but never great. Steve Jobs, one of the most successful CEOs in history, though once was kicked out from Apple, his daring and innovative ideas finally help him build a fantastic company. He has updated the traditional concepts of design, launching products free from existing trend, which most of leaders hesitated to do. Compared with unfiltered Jobs, many experienced leaders such as his successor Tim Cook, have done an expectable job in running their company stably but fail to break through. Leadership research has suggested that promoting a filtered leader is good to consistency, whereas an unfiltered one is to change (Sessions, 2012, cited by Munkunda, 2012).
In most cases, a highly risky change means a potential great reward beyond expectation, and unfiltered leaders tend to be better at taking chances of risk. However, risky unfiltered leaders as well more easily to meet disastrous defeat and only a few of them are entitled with great leaders. Probably that is the reason why those risk takers get rejection easily, for their professional minds are always questioned and people are afraid of potential failure. And it is that make them more admirable after they keep trying and prove themselves. Experience here plays a disappointing role in leading an organization, prevent leaders from being a positive thinker and make a difference. Unfiltered leaders seem to be outsiders from their professions; however, their achievements cannot be separated from past experience as well. Those so called outsiders are always likely to gain skills and features from other fields, and then they can apply them to later occupations.
From this perspective, both the filtered and unfiltered are with experience in different categories that contribute to their leadership and those unfiltered cannot be narrowly defined to be inexperienced. Normally, leadership skills do not come from limited areas, so that the common points let great leaders suitable for various positions. Excellent eloquence, acute insights, strong adaptability and the like are all beneficial for a great leader, which experience has a remarkable influence on. By learning from experience, individuals obtain a wide range of abilities, develop own characters and prepare for the potential targets. Nevertheless these things will not list on the resume, which lead to the fact that individuals’ are underestimated. Take Abraham Lincoln for example. Since observers noticed that he suffered quite a few failures, his early years definitely establish the foundation for Lincoln’s political career. He was born in a poor family and the bumpy life made him a hardy man with responsibilities. He has worked with the bottom and witnessed miserable situation of black people, which at first formed his political standpoint against slavery and merciful interactions with others. Meanwhile his ups and downs within political circle with no doubt enable him deal with pressures and dilemma.
Moreover, being a lawyer definitely gave him skills of debating and logical thinking, let alone his duties as a state senator and a member of congress. Apparently, there are similarities and differences of experience among leaders. Then what kinds of experience are mostly relevant to making great leaders on earth? And how can organizations identify and promote a potential leader with both visible and invisible experience? Conchie (cited by Robison, 2013) takes the view that general experience sometimes isn’t important and very specific kinds of experience matters most. He stresses what he calls additive experiences which are rare but imperative, including running a risky project or integrating a complex acquisition. Other breakthrough experiences are mentioned, such as being promoted to a high-visibility position before being ready, navigating cultural diversity, and leading a cross-functional team on a major initiative.
Besides, it is proposed (Avery et al., 2003) that the relevance of prior experience, experience in the subordinate’s jobs, and experience under high stress conditions will positively foresee leader effectiveness. And strategic thinking, another key point of great leaders under nowadays business environment, responds to international work experience especially within quite distinct cultures (Dragoni, 2014). What’s more, people have reached an agreement on the experiences of negotiating, conducting co-workers’ behavior, acquiring feedback out of one’s formal duties and so on for leadership skills. Experience in need can be either traditional or nontraditional, which great leaders should learn from even more than anyone else. To sum up, though experience owns its merits and demerits, best leaders do need experience. The so called unfiltered leaders actually possess necessary leadership skills gained from invisible experience so that they cannot be definitely regarded as the inexperienced. The gap between the two kinds of leaders is that unfiltered leaders act more flexible towards existing rules.
The filtered and unfiltered leaders, with different levels or types of experience, have displayed various characters, which will help them perform better. Indeed, no amount of experience can certainly make the best leader, but the best leader is certain to learn from rich experience. Facts have proved that both insiders and outsiders can be really great leaders who respectively own their good points. For organizations, they are expected to equip employees to pursue experience. McCauley (2013) claims that models and frameworks that describe the kinds of experience individuals should seek to develop as leaders should be provided. And creating new types of developmental experiences for employees is highly recommended. As regard to hiring outsiders or insiders, organizations had better keep the balance of risk and reward when choosing an appropriate one. Risk evaluation then should be taken seriously. However, the risk of seeking out unfiltered leaders is still too great for a company, so that maybe instead developing insiders into creative decision makers is more practical.
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