Great leaders read and travel.

One of the complaints I hear from hiring managers about aspiring leaders and newly minted MBAs is that their knowledge was gained in a prescriptive format, through a classroom. They lack the refinement and practicality that experience provides. I’m often asked what we can do to expedite the refinement of this knowledge, besides practice for twenty years. I always give the same answer:

Inspire leaders to read and travel as much as possible.

Leadership is a human art, a lifelong apprenticeship focused on inspiring others to accomplish something great together. If the goal of leadership is to excite a focused creativity within the teams you serve, then my advice is to lean heavily on two of life’s greatest teachers.

The mind’s most powerful tool for learning is reading. Likewise, travel is a great teacher of the heart. The inspiration, the perspective, the empathy that allows you to make the tough decisions, to find compassion where others fail to, comes from being an active observer and participant in humanity’s diverse network of ideas and experiences. Both reading and traveling will provide an unlimited supply of ideas and learnings you can use to tackle fundamental leadership challenges.

Reading is, dare I say, a mandatory task for leaders. Why? Partly because you don’t have time to make all of the mistakes yourself. If you want to lead, you must learn from others. If you want to excel at leadership, you must learn rapidly from others. Some information is timeless and foundational to the study of leadership, but some are time sensitive and appropriate to learn only within a short period. The rate you actively consume this information limits how much you can learn from it. If you check out my GoodReads you’ll see I average 45 or so books a year. This is a fairly typical number for students of leadership. It’s not hard as long as you’re not living in time poverty, but it does take discipline. Armed with the knowledge of others, you can then set out to commingle that theory with your own experience and ideas. It’s a tremendous undertaking.

As hard as that may be, mixing the ideas of your colleagues and predecessors with your own is only part of the challenge. You also need to be able to communicate what you’ve learned. And never has there been a greater teacher of the art of storytelling than reading and being told great stories. Craft your unique inspirational and engaging stories, and your unifying missives upon the shoulders of great storytellers.

Travel is the other great teacher of leaders because it tempers the heart against intolerance and gives us insight into the possibilities that diversity yields. We lead with our hearts, and so we must take care to allow our hearts to see and understand the wonders of different cultures, people, and places. If we don't, we run the risk of failing to appreciate the power of diversity on our teams. Worse still, we could fail to reach and inspire a teammate we don't have the opportunity to truly understand.

Not everyone can afford grandiose international travel and that’s not what I mean when I say to travel. Travel can be a sixteen hour shot across the world to Hong Kong, but it can also be a walk to your local park, a 2 hour trip on a bus, or a short drive to the coast. Most of us live in a place where we can see many cultures, people, and art without leaving our hometown. Why is this important?

Without going out into the world and seeing people as they are, you will struggle to understand and guide them to what they may become.

As leaders, we use empathy to find compassion, curiosity to learn about them, and vulnerability to share ourselves with them. How better to practice this than to physically go to them? (Think about this the next time one of your aspiring leaders asks to attend a conference somewhere they have never traveled to.) Travel far and wide, or simply down the street, with means, or on a shoestring budget. Wherever it may be, leave what you know and immerse yourself in the unfamiliar. There is no better teacher than experience and no faster way to gain it than to find yourself surrounded by the unknown.

Remember, leadership doesn’t come from within you because it’s not about you. It is about those you lead. And they, quite literally, are out there. So grab a book, and I’ll see you at the train station.

By: Jason Sgro

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