The Danger of Experience

robotSometimes I wish it was still the 1960’s. It was the days of the television show Lost in Space. In this cinematic gem, there was a robot who looked after a young boy named Will. In only one episode, the robot warned Will of impending danger by saying, “Danger, Will Robinson!” The saying caught on and reached catchphrase status uttered to warn someone when they are about to make a mistake or are overlooking something.

As leaders, we need that robot’s warning. Here’s what I mean.

As we grow in our leadership skills, confidence rises. We reach a point where we have experienced a variety of difficult situations. We celebrate the successes while grieving the losses. We become comfortable in our leadership skin. We begin to think we have this leadership thing mastered. That is the point where experience can be dangerous.  At this place, stagnation can set in. We can analyze situations and think to ourselves too quickly, “I know what to do here. This is like the time I…”(insert leadership problem and canned solution here). Cue the robot.

Every organization wants a leader wise enough to handle situations that come up. That’s where the rub comes.

Reality says there are going to be situations that come up that even the most experienced leader has not seen before. Then what? A classic example is how United States leaders responded after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. No one had ever seen anything quite like this before. There was no frame of reference. But soon we began to see true leaders step to the forefront to get our nation back on track.

know the answer

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Experience and wisdom are not the same things. I have known leaders who have one-year experience, twenty times. They have a hammer and every problem they encounter looks like a nail.

Other leaders I know have little experience but are blessed with “wisdom beyond their years.” That’s the kind of leader we want to lead our organization. We want leaders who can figure it out when they haven’t seen the situation before.

That’s the kind of leader we want to be. Yes, experience matters but it becomes dangerous when we rely on it too much to the exclusion of wisdom. Wisdom wins every time.

I like what Ed Catmull of Pixar says in Creativity, Inc.: “Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.” If we find ourselves not thinking differently about the problems we encounter, if every problem is a nail, then perhaps we’re not engaging enough in the problem but relying too much on our experience to save us.

Great leaders engage wisdom to help them solve problems and let their experience speak for itself.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of Experience

  1. John Jacob says:

    Nicely put. Our resume opens the door, our wisdom guides an organization.

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