When I go on my speaking tours several times each year, one of the most popular talks I do is about the common “myths and realities” of leadership. By “myth”, in this context, I mean something that much of society persists in believing when it is actually not true.
One of the most prevalent of these myths is the belief that leaders have something special in their past that somehow sets them apart from the rest of us. It may be the unusual circumstances of their upbringing, a remarkable encounter or rite of passage in adolescence, or some great test at an early stage of their professional lives. We have a tendency to want to find some unusual and noteworthy experience that has molded them for the challenges of leadership.
My research and coaching of leaders has led me to the firm belief that this “extraordinary experience” thesis cannot be true. In fact, most people who emerge as leaders have life experiences that are similar to many others around them.
For instance, there is nothing particularly unusual about the childhood of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But despite the ordinary nature of her early years, this daughter of middle-class shopkeepers from a traditional English town spoke often of what her background had taught her. Thatcher was convinced that her own story and values were a model to help a “lost” Britain find its way again. She proudly proclaimed that the virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and basic human decency—exactly the principles she had absorbed from her upbringing—were just the remedies for what ailed her nation.
While Thatcher’s origins may be unremarkable, her ability to learn from them was indeed extraordinary.
Simple logic, as well, would lead us to understand that it is not the experience alone that makes the leader. Nelson Mandela, for example, considers his time in prison as the turning point of his life, the event that allowed him to grow into the leader he was to become. In his jail cell, he reflected as never before, about his past life, about his desire to become a better person, and about the need to eschew anger and vengefulness. He was able to achieve “the most difficult task in life…changing yourself.”
However, if his long incarceration was the defining incident of the future president’s life journey, the important part of the story was not the event of going to prison, a common occurrence for anti-apartheid activists at that time. Far more interesting was Mandela’s processing of the event and his use of its lessons.
As Mandela told Oprah Winfrey in 2001: “Before I went to jail, I was active in politics as a member of South Africa’s leading organization—and I was generally busy from 7 A.M. until midnight. I never had time to sit and think. As I worked, physical and mental fatigue set in and I was unable to operate to the maximum of my intellectual ability. But in a single cell in prison, I had time to think. I had a clear view of my past and present, and I found that my past left much to be desired, both in regard to my relations with other humans and in developing personal worth.”
Most human beings who go to jail for nearly three decades would emerge feeling dejected, bitter, resentful or victimized. Rather than let the experience discourage or embitter him, Mandela was able to turn it positive. The work he did on himself during those prison years transformed Nelson Mandela into the man who would emerge as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, and a worldwide symbol for justice and fairness.
If leaders do not have extraordinary pasts, what they do have is an extraordinary ability to learn from and to use their pasts.
It is a lesson I have come to emphasize over and over in my teaching and coaching: most leaders simply do not have extraordinary pasts. Rather, they develop an extraordinary capacity to use their life experience. They are able to process new experiences, to find meaning in them, and to integrate them into their worldviews. They learn to transform even the negative events of their lives into something that serves them.
It is this capacity to process life, to learn, to integrate new experiences into who they are, and to transform themselves…that is often what sets leaders apart from the rest.