How Important is Experience to Great Leadership?

Not as much as you think.

I was reading a quote the other day from John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 was battling perceptions in his presidential campaign that he didn’t have enough experience.

Experience, he said, “is like taillights on a boat which illuminate where we have been when we should be focusing on where we should be going.

This quote got me to thinking about the value of experience in being a great leader, and my own struggles to overcome a perceived lack of experience in becoming a leader.

The bottom line for me is that while experience is a factor, it’s not as critical as it is commonly portrayed to be.

The best example is my own – I got my first leadership job at the ripe old age of 27, overseeing a company generating over $200 Million in annual revenue. Someone took a chance on me based on reasons that went beyond a “long” resume – it was based more on the hirer’s keen intuition of educational and cultural background, intelligence, character, personality, and above all, common sense.

And, I was REALLY focused on what was in front of me rather than what was behind. I also think he knew that I was bound and determined to justify the risk that he took on me.

I jumped in the pond, head first, and worked, and worked, and worked. This “fish out of water” helped build the company I managed into one that was later sold for a very healthy profit.

The funny thing was, once the company was sold and I was back looking for a similar opportunity, they were hard to come by. The reason? I didn’t have “enough experience“. I KNEW I could lead, but it seemed like what everybody wanted to focus on was tenure - like there was some magic number of years that I needed to have under my belt.

I eventually got back to a place I wanted to be (after a personal declaration of independence), but it only hardened my resolve to put experience in the proper perspective, especially in my own hiring practices.

And so as I’ve made management hires over the past 5 years, I too have done my utmost to use the same intuition my first boss did with me over 20 years ago. It has paid great dividends for our company, for there are several less “experienced” leaders doing a fantastic job for us.

As noted by Lois McMaster Bujold,

“Experience suggests it doesn’t matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.”

(Note: This article was originally posted on 12/19/07.  The author is currently on vacation and fresh posts will return next week. Lead well!)

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Comments

  1. Steven Young says

    Great post and a wonderful point. Those with experience don’t necessarily make for a great leader either. Lots of people have experience at stuff and yet still suck at it.

  2. Thad says

    Excellent post. So many times we look at experience as if it guarantees future success. It doesn’t. If anything, past success may make you grow over cautious the next time you tackle a difficult task since you’ve seen first hand what can happen.

  3. Starbucker says

    Hi Thad, thanks, as always, for your comment. Good point too on being “over-cautious” – bad past experiences can certainly do that to a person.
    All the best!
    Terry

  4. Michael Mallows says

    It seems to me that your first opportunity was based on a great deal of experience.
    The hirer’s keen intuition, for example, enabled him to recognise the product of your educational and cultural background, along with your intelligence, character, personality, and above all, common sense.
    Kennedy had the wit and wisdom, developed as a result of his experiences along the way, to surround himself with people who had the requisite experience to support, criticise and collaborate in effective leadership. THAT comes from experience and can create [future] leaders.
    And you are a good example of that.

    Go well

  5. Curt Sumners says

    Abraham Lincoln’s previous management experience before he became President was running a two-man law office in the frontier backwoods of Illinois. I think that speaks well to how important experience is when choosing a leader.

  6. Geno Rothe says

    Terry,

    Excellent post and some very true comments from other contributors. Many times the experience is not the right fit or event the right experience for the task a hand for the organization, and it can be more detrimental. I have also experienced that with a couple of managers (who I consider now) mentors and whom I reach out for advise and guidance. I am appreciative of the ones who have given other factors of my background to allow me to collaborate, those have been the best assignments and the ones I’ve learned the most. Great post!

  7. Maria Eksteen says

    Great article! Plenty of food for though and a true eye opener. Totally agree. Experience may also mean being stuck in the box, whereas thinking out of the box is of the essence these days.

  8. Starbucker says

    Hi Michael, thanks for your comment, and your kind words. My hirer certainly did have keen intuition (in spades as a matter of fact), and it served him very well over a long career.
    Thanks again, and all the best!
    Terry

  9. Starbucker says

    Hi Geno, thanks for your comment. I too am appreciative of those mentors who gave me a chance to succeed. I didn’t want to let them down, once they put that trust in me.
    All the best!
    Terry

  10. Starbucker says

    Hi Maria, thanks for the kind words. You’re right, these days “experience” can easily mean “tunnel vision”, when broader thinking is demanded.
    All the best,
    Terry

  11. stephan weber says

    Lois,

    What a fantastic post, when I first read the title I went hell yeah, experience is important then took the time to read the post itself and the very first quote slammed that LOL. I can’t tell you how often I have faced that same judgement you describe. The part that really slams it home is how after tremendous success you still received the same objection.

  12. Starbucker says

    Hi Stephan, thanks for your comment. It is strange that people can make the same “hire just on experience” mistake over and over again, but alas, it still happens.
    All the best,
    Terry

  13. David Schofield says

    Thanks for this – a refreshing departure from the stereotypical. JFK was also quoted as saying that “Leadership and Learnership are indispensable to one another”. Experience in one domain does not – cannot – guarentee (and indeed can get in the way of) effective leadership in another. (Eg. The often retrogressive appointment of Consultant Physicians into executive leadership positions through their experience as Clinical “Leads”). My guess is that you were able to inter-pesonally personally extend, engage with, and nurture relational qualities in a cohesive and transformational “experience” with your peers and Followers. JFK did just that. Very little “formal” experience needed there, I think! Keep sharing these positives, please.

  14. Starbucker says

    Hi David, and thanks for your comment, and words of encouragement. I’ve also experienced that “experience in one domain doesn’t guarantee effective leadership” situation, and it wasn’t pretty. In the end, leadership is not “one size fits all”.
    Thanks again, and all the best!
    Terry

  15. Diana Autin says

    There are different types of experience that can help with effective leadership. Immigrant parents who have lived facing discrimination and denial of access can be effective leaders even if they have not had “leadership” experience, because their lived experience and commitment to making things better for themselves and other immigrant parents can be so persuasive.

  16. Starbucker says

    Thanks Diana, you are so right, there are many different ways to get “experience”, and your example really makes that point.
    All the best,
    Terry

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