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Learning to Be a Leader

Watch a video of the lecture here.

When Robert Thomas interviewed dozens of leaders, young and old, about their leadership experience, they all agreed on one thing: Learning to be a leader happens most effectively through experience.

For Thomas, executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance and professor of leadership at the Brandeis University International School, learning to be a leader involves not only experience but self-reflection. Thomas taught students and faculty how to self-reflect on Wednesday as part of a talk sponsored by McCormick Dean’s Seminar Series and the Center for Leadership.

“I can’t teach you leadership, but you can learn it,” he said.

Thomas challenges leaders to think about a time when they learned something important about themselves – a time when a challenge or success made them consider their ability as a leader. Thomas calls these moments “crucibles” – he wrote a book about such moments titled, “Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader” – and says each of these stories is unique to the person.

That sort of self-reflection will teach leaders to consider just how they learn. True leaders never stop learning, Thomas said, and they understand how they learn best. That lets them establish a thought process to constantly consider how and why they lead.

“The challenge, of course, is what’s going on inside of you,” he said. “Why should you lead? It has to be a continuous inner monologue… a lesson about leadership is a lesson about learning, as well.”

The best leaders learn to change a behavior that’s not working and learn to continually practice their vocation, even while performing.

“Experience is absolutely critical,” he said. “Leadership is all about performance… about improving performance.”

The best leaders are resilient in the face of crisis, he said, and often a true measure of leadership is how well someone can bounce back from failure. Bouncing back means looking to a support structure – what Thomas calls a “personal board of directors”: people who will be honest and helpful – to help them face adversity.

If students can build their own board of directors in college, he said, that could be “the most valuable thing they take away.”