Uncertainty is part and parcel with experiential learning.

Workplace experience is key to learning leadership as most in our field subscribe to something close to the 70-20-10 model of leadership development. The 70% is for experiential learning. Twenty percent is relational and ten percent is classroom learning.

The kind of experience needed to learn leadership is a little bit scary, because it involves taking on different roles and engaging in difficult tasks that outside your comfort zone.

Gallup’s Vibhas Ratanjee got us thinking about this when he published an article in August emphasizing this importance and discussing how many organizations come up short in actually providing the sorts of experiences that developing leaders need.

Ratanjee does a nice job of defining key experiences as “events in a leader’s life that result in learning, growth and/or increased capacity to effectively lead,” and listing a few specific examples.

Making a lateral move within an organization casts a manager into a situation where prior practices no longer apply. Taking an international assignment in an unfamiliar culture adds some stress and confusion for just about anyone. Even in a familiar role, being handed a difficult task—say, downsizing a division—is fraught with uncertainty and few easy templates for success. Failure is a possibility in each of these situations.

“A variety of experiences are essential to achieving broad and balanced development,” writes Ratanjee. “Experiences that create a significant difference in a leader’s growth are breakthrough experiences. Crucible moments. These sometimes transformational experiences reset how leaders view their work and their lives.”

It’s all uncertain. We’ve never really needed leaders who take us to familiar places, have we?

The experiences that people need to learn leadership OUGHT to be a little scary. But for those who are “okay” with ambiguity and uncertainty, experience becomes more of a thrill.

In the book Relax. It’s Only Uncertainty, Hodgson and White describe measurable traits of uncertainty-tolerant executives with eight “enablers.” Three of these enablers are especially important to experiential learning as discussed by Gallup.

  • Motivated by Mysteries—mystery seekers get energy from NOT knowing
  • Be Risk Tolerant—risk tolerators don’t always need all the information and are comfortable with ambiguous data
  • Tackle Tough Issues—when the going gets tough, motivation goes up

This is where the 10% of 70-20-10 comes in.

You can prepare and/or select the high potential personnel in your organization to take on learning leadership “key experiences” by assessing for these traits an. And you can teach and coach people to be more comfortable with uncertainty and even enthused by the possibilities of coming up with a “first” or a different approach.

Learning through experience is vital to leadership development. In addition to providing key experiences for growth, organizations can help more candidates be more successful by choosing people who are ready to make the most of any experience.