Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership

Human Resource Management International Digest

ISSN: 0967-0734

Article publication date: 8 July 2014


Rao, M.S. (2014), "Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 22 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership

Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 22, Issue 5

Gerard Seijts, Routledge, 2013, ISBN 9780415659765

Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership, by Gerard Seijts, explores the real-life experiences of a wide variety of leaders from different industries, sectors and countries to bring to light new lessons on the importance of lifelong learning.

Consisting primarily of a series of interviews with 31 senior and high-profile leaders, the book pulls important and useful perspectives into a robust theoretical framework that includes the importance of innate curiosity, challenging oneself, risk-taking and other key elements of good leadership.

The author explains that good leaders learn from their own experience and from the good or bad experiences of other leaders they have seen in action. They learn from their peers, the people who report to them, their competitors, partners and suppliers. They learn from their critics and their allies.

Character, says the author, is fundamental to making effective decisions. To be sure, leaders can make mistakes because they do not have the right competencies. More often, however, the root cause of mistakes is a failing of character.

One leadership myth is that the learning curve is steepest in the early years, begins to flatten as one learns to be a good leader and levels out toward the end of one’s leadership career. Good leaders, however, often report that the learning curve is shaped the other way. In the early stages of their careers, they learn what others already know. At the more advanced stages they learn about what is currently unknown. That is far more challenging.

In the corporate world, in most countries, leaders are larger-than-life figures. They are treated like gods. The biggest challenge leaders have is to create channels for feedback and keep them open.

Organizations probably need different leaders at different times, as not all leaders are effective in all situations. A particular style and perspective may be better suited for different times.

The “trust” part of leadership is, says the author, very personal. People need to know who you are. That does not develop over a week or two. Trust develops over years of people seeing leaders in circumstances of crisis and circumstances outside their comfort zone. Trust takes a long time to build and a very short time to lose.

Leadership is about influencing people, getting them to do their best and making them excited about what they are doing. The more experienced a leader gets, the more self-aware he or she becomes. Leaders should learn what they are good at, find out what they are not so good at and not be afraid to say that they are not good at something. Self-awareness comes with age and experience.

Gerard Seijts points out that as leaders get more experience, they realize that people are not all the same and they do not all respond the same way. They do not think the same way. They do not listen the same way. They are not motivated in the same way. This is something that leaders learn with time.

A lot of chief executives continue to view human resource (HR) as something on the side, says the author. Jack Welch, former chairman and chief executive of the US conglomerate General Electric, was really innovative in HR. He spent a huge amount of time thinking about how best to develop leaders, how to motivate people, how to measure performance and how to promote people. He did this at a time when most chief executives spent a token amount time on these and other critical people-related questions.

Leadership is not an event, hierarchy or position. It is not about the stripes on one’s shoulder. Leadership is not about the location of one’s office or the size of one’s paycheck. Leadership is more of an attitude – one that engenders followership. People can demonstrate leadership of some form in all walks of life, and are predisposed to do that.

The author claims that experience and resistance to change can be barriers. But leaders who have an innate desire to continue to learn will not only become better at the job but also more youthful.

As people move toward the chief-executive role, they need a good understanding not only of their operation and company but also of the environment in which they operate and how its economic, political or industry dynamics interact. This calls for extra effort in terms of reading and reaching out to people who have been exposed to these areas.

Leaders need to articulate what they see and excite people around it. They must have enough room to add their own color and shapes. Leaders must be aware that different people expect different things. A leader needs to understand the context in which events take place, how others may react and how to respond appropriately.

Research shows that good mentorship can affect a leader’s career in many positive ways. Mentors provide a sounding board for leadership. They help leaders to reflect on their motivations and aspirations. Overall, a good mentor helps a leader to become more effective.

The book is highly inspiring with leadership takeaways from high-profile chief executives and thought leaders around the world. It dishes out page after page of thought-provoking and inspirational lessons.

Reviewed by Professor M.S. Rao, international leadership guru. E-mail: