Note from Jen: Leadership development on $0 a day

March 20, 2018

Each of the new Bush Fellows will receive up to $100,000 to invest in their own leadership development. That is amazing and will support them to dream big about their growth as leaders. At the same time, when I think back about the experiences that made the biggest difference in my own leadership development, most of them were free.

Leadership development is a mindset. Are you seeking out experiences to help you grow? Are you observing and absorbing the lessons offered around you? For those of you without $100,000 to spend, I recommend:

Watch others

The world is your leadership lab. There are people all around you all the time trying to manage or influence others. What are they trying to do? What works? What doesn’t work? It doesn’t have to be awesome and inspiring leadership. You can learn equally from good and bad leaders. If you think your boss is terrible, figure out why and what you want to be sure NOT to do. It doesn’t have to be in the workplace. Analyze your kids’ basketball coach or your spiritual leader. And it doesn’t have to be in person. Watch the police chief on the news or a community leader at a rally or watch videos of commencement speakers.

Practice in your head 

To me, the common advice to dress for the role you want is way less useful than this less-common advice: think for the role you want. Spending time thinking what you would do will help prepare you for what you will do, when you have the chance. When an organizational or public policy decision is made, think through what factors were involved and how you would have weighed the tradeoffs. If you are in meetings that aren’t productive or inspiring, think about what you would do differently. (By the way, thinking like this also tends to change how you act in your current role in ways that make it easier for others to picture you in bigger roles.)

Ask for feedback and support

You can get better at everything you are doing. All of us can. If you don’t know how, ask someone. And really ask. Don’t just say, “Do you have any feedback?” Ask for specifics in a way that creates a real opening for people to do more than praise you. More like, “I want to be a more effective public speaker. Will you watch me do this presentation and tell me at least three things that I could do better?” Or, “I feel like this project could have been better. What should I think about doing differently?”

Take on new challenges

You can’t grow if you are always doing the same thing in the same way. Look for ways to try new things and practice new approaches. Showing interest and initiative in growth will help people think of you for stretch assignments. If you don’t have opportunities in the workplace, seek new challenges through volunteer service. This is a great – and often underappreciated – way to build skills and get experience to position yourself for future roles.

Seek out free learning opportunities

There is so much out there that costs little to nothing. Join Pollen and/or your relevant industry groups to find out about events and trainings.* Subscribe to publications in your field or areas of interest and then actually read them. Set a goal of watching a TED video a week on something in or out of your field. Spend more time talking with people who have different backgrounds than you and different jobs than you and think in different ways than you. And read books! I particularly value biographies, understanding the choices of people from all different backgrounds in all different contexts. I’ve gotten lasting leadership lessons from books on Colin Powell, Dolly Parton and Genghis Khan.

Each of these activities has made a huge difference in my own leadership development. And still does. It is fun to daydream about what I would do with $100,000. And, at the same time, I can improve my leadership a whole lot on $0 a day. 


*This is a good place to plug our Change Networks, which focus on helping people lead inclusively. They are free and will be accepting applications in the Spring of 2018. Also, we regularly offer free experiences so make sure you are on our email list.