On September 22, 1842, twenty years prior to reading the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel.
Lincoln had written a blistering, attack type letter in the Illinois Sangamo Journal against James Shields, a democrat who had defeated Lincoln for the Senate seat a few years prior. Shields took the ridicule seriously and challenged Lincoln to a duel. Shields sent one of his men to Lincoln and this man shared that as Lincoln was the challenged party he had a choice of weapons – might it be pistol or broad sword?
Lincoln’s reply? Cow dung at five paces.
Lincoln diffused the situation with humor and learned a life-long leadership lesson about choosing his words and actions more carefully going forward. Lincoln acknowledged that his letter was mean-spirited, not a great reflection of his character, and in hindsight, a bit of an embarrassment. This awareness was an important inflection point on Lincoln’s Leadership Learning Curve.
Lincoln is not alone. No leader, whether in politics or business, escapes the Leadership Learning Curve – it’s a natural ride because every leader learns on the job. The Leadership Learning Curve is a reflection of how well a leader acquires new skills and knowledge and then applies his or her cumulative knowledge to subsequent situations with evolving wisdom.
Historian Jon Meacham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, “American Lion,” frequently mentions specific examples of Presidential learning curves from Jefferson’s fleeing Monticello in 1781 to Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle. More recently, in 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln with his infamous Mission Accomplished sign in the background. Bush did not admit it was a mistake until 2009. Across the aisle, President Obama’s Guantanamo Bay declaration on the second day of his first term highlights his underestimation of the need for Congress’ buy-in. Unfortunately, President Obama promised something he couldn’t deliver because he didn’t know what he didn’t know yet.
The Leadership Learning Curve is not reserved just for Presidents – it’s applicative to business leaders as well. Underneath the title, the role, the CEO title of a leader is a human being struggling to figure it out.
Recently, the University of Southern California’s football coach, Steve Sarkisian, had quite the spectacle with drinking and swearing at a school event. What’s more fascinating than his misstep was how he faced it. Sarkisian met with all the team players afterward, and confidentially shared some of his personal secrets with them. Their quarterback, Cody Kessler, said “He came to us as a man, apologized, looked us in the face, told us some things, and that’s hard to do.” Kessler went on to say, “I think he earned more respect from us, and the team. I think it brought us closer together. Today, everybody couldn’t wait to get out to practice.”
How well leaders navigate the Leadership Learning Curve is a direct reflection of the secrets leaders keep. Every leader has secrets, secrets that can truncate their success as well as secrets that can ignite their accomplishments. Some common secrets that stymy success are competitive jealousy, personal relationship challenges, low EQ, blind spots or a lack of self-forgiveness to name a few. When leaders are willing to expose the secrets they keep – even if only to themselves, and work through them – they can positively and exponentially transform the way they lead.
Some of the secrets to fruitfully traversing the Leadership Learning Curve are accepting responsibility for transgressions, working through personal difficulties, apologizing for missteps, asking for help, and stepping forward with wiser decisions, choices and actions. These steps prove that leaders are indeed human, but that their learning agility is high and their compass is pointed to a stronger future.
When leaders turn mistakes into learning opportunities and quickly take responsibility for learning how to play greater going forward, it allows followers to more graciously accept their leader’s missteps and mistakes, and like Kessler, to believe that their leader is indeed still worthy of following.
AmyK Hutchens is a catalyst for producing sustainable solutions to a leader’s most pressing challenges. Her new book is The Secrets Leaders Keep. Learn even more about AmyK at www.amyk.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyKInc.
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