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Surprising ways to become a better leader

4 min read


Have you ever been to a leadership training program and realized the concepts taught would be as much use to you at home as at work? According to research by Development Dimensions International, leaders who apply their newly learned skills at work also put those skills to use at home. The same is true in reverse: you can draw upon life outside of work to be a better leader at work. All it takes is sharpening your observational skills and a focus on seeing leadership lessons in life’s daily activities.

Leadership lessons unfold in unlikely places; it’s surprising how life can help you become a better leader. Look to these six potential sources for inspiration.

The arts. It’s riveting to watch other people navigate life’s challenges, especially from the comfort of our living room sofa. It can be instructive as well. Movies, theatre, and television all provide countless lessons on leadership, if you pay attention. The same goes with literature; nearly any well-written book showcases instances of leadership greatness and failure. If this feels too much like “school,” save the introspection for titles you’ve already seen. Watching or reading an old favorite with new eyes uncovers nuances you probably missed the first time around.

Sports. Whether it’s your kid’s Little League game, a collegiate showdown or a professional contest, lessons on motivating and leading a team abound. Every so often, take your focus off the “victory” element of the sporting event. Instead, watch for how coaches and team captains rally to create greatness on the field. Dig deeper to learn even more from lesser seen but still important actors such as parents, fans and behind-the-scenes support staff.

Gardening. If you’ve ever coaxed something green to thrive, then you know that leadership and gardening share many common themes. The acts of seed selection, soil preparation, planting, watering, and pruning — they all have lessons to teach about tending our workplace “gardens” as well.

Volunteer work. Community service is one of your strongest learning labs because it most closely resembles your work environment. A person who successfully leads a committee learns as much as any MBA class on management has to offer. “Management by committee” is a tough slog, but if you learn from it, your team and your career benefit.

Family and friends. This one’s a bit dicey because it’s difficult to distance ourselves from the interpersonal dynamics at play with those closest to us. Yet our families and close friends are our earliest teachers, for good or bad. If you can objectively reflect on the “lessons learned” about trust, motivation and building camaraderie, look to this cohort for inspiration.

Nature. Do you ever look to nature to help you puzzle out a challenge at work? I tend to favor the botanical (as in this essay on dealing with change), but any “-ology” that helps you better understand your corner of the management biosphere is especially helpful.

The full gamut of our life’s experiences can help us become better leaders. Take a look around you to see how your world outside of work can help you be better when you’re in the office. It costs nothing, yet the potential rewards are immense.

Jennifer V. Miller is a writer and leadership development consultant. Her writing and digital training materials help business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow her on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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