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Leadership: an experiment of one

April 12, 2022   ·  

Have you noticed that there are a lot of so-called “best practices” for leadership?

So many books, podcasts, training programs, all intending to teach you the tools and skills of leadership.

But as author Antony Jay pointed out, “The only real training for leadership is leadership.”

Don’t get me wrong: you absolutely need to know the foundational skills and tools.

But first and foremost, you need to understand that each of those skills and all of those tools are both situational and personal. You need to know yourself well enough to know what works for you, and how you’ll put your own individual perspective and experience into play in all the various circumstances you encounter as a leader.

As organizational consultant and leadership expert Warren Bennis said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.”

So if leadership is personal, individual, and “an experiment of one” (meaning, you), how can you learn and grow whilst making as few mistakes as possible?

Start by learning those foundational skills

As I said, you absolutely need to know the basic skills of leadership. Communication, strategic thinking, and decisiveness are key. Delegation, effective feedback, and – although it might seem like part of comunication, it needs to be called out separately – listening.

These (and more) are far bigger topics than can be covered in this article. But you have ownership of your career and the choices you make about how you learn. Go forth and research. You can start by simply reading the articles here on the Harkn blog!

Understand that concepts must be translated into practice

Concepts are great, but they won’t get you where you need to go. How many of us have been to workshops or conferences, learned all kinds of cool concepts, but then you’re back at your desk and … hmmm … how does that work, again?

Look for examples. Find mentors, even if they don’t know they’re mentors – watch and observe, see what works, see what doesn’t.

Try things out. Remember: you’re an experiment of one. And “experiment” by definition means there are going to be times when something doesn’t work. Take it slow and learn from your mistakes.


I know I said that the skills and tools are bigger topics than can be covered here.

But listening is such a crucial skill for leadership and management (and one that Harkn enables, of course) that I want to spend a few moments on it.

We aren’t taught to listen. We’re taught to debate, to defend, to counteract, to discuss, but not to listen.

I recently heard someone comment that when we don’t listen to what someone has to say, we’re essentially telling them that they’re invisible; that they don’t exist.


And when we listen only in order to answer, well, that’s not listening either.

In an early episode of his podcast “Clear and Vivid,” Alan Alda (yes, that Alan Alda) said that for him, listening means being willing to be changed by what you hear.

Don’t get me wrong: this is hard. And it’s even harder if you’re in an organization that doesn’t want to deal with anything they don’t want to know about.

But, as I said, you own your own career – and you can grow your leadership with your own actions and your own willingness to be an experiment of one.


Further reading