The Gift of Bad Examples

Back when studying teaching in the murky depths of the last millennium, when introducing a new concept we were advised to:

• Name it
• Define it
• Identify and discuss its qualities
• Show examples
• Show non-examples

This idea is explained here, and some examples of this in practice are here and here and here.

I’ll admit I was rather taken by the idea of non-examples. They clarify boundaries, and eliminate fuzziness. They are a powerful way to learn.

I’ve been wondering lately whether this is also true for some leadership competencies? Might it be easier to learn from non-examples… or bad examples… than from good examples?

To illustrate:

Have you ever had a manager who avoided making decisions? Decisions that NEEDED to be made? It's painful! It’s a non-example of good leadership. This kind of experience strengthens my resolve not to be like that, but to make decisions in a timely fashion.

At the other extreme, have you ever known a leader who rushed to make decisions without consultation, and without enough relevant information to make a good judgment call? This kind of experience strengthens my resolve to consult, to do research, and avoid making snap judgments.

Or consider the skills involved in upfront leadership (giving presentations, sermons and the like). When you watch a masterful speaker at their craft, it is difficult to analyse why they’re so good. You tend to get swept away in their stories; you feel moved.

However, when you watch a terrible speaker at work, you turn into an instant armchair critic. “Oh my goodness, stop talking so fast! Stop fidgeting! Stop saying ‘um’ all the time! Why doesn’t he look up from his notes, he isn’t engaging with the group at all! Gosh this speech needs some humour! Stop saying ‘finally’ and then going on and on! Why didn’t you prepare a closing sentence?” The voices in your head are actually quite instructive as to how to become a better public speaker; often more so than listening to a masterful speaker.

When supervised by a fantastic leader, you know it’s a great experience, but it’s hard to analyse exactly WHY they are so good.*

I think many of my richest learning experiences in life have been from bad examples. From my own personal bad examples (or mistakes). From the bad examples of others. Pain is a marvellous teacher.

Think for a moment about the worst leader/supervisor you’ve ever known. What did they do that was so bad? And what did you learn from that experience about leadership?

* Note you are likely to become a better leader via unconscious mimcry, when you're working with great leaders!


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