I loved math as a child. I really enjoyed the black and white of numbers. Two plus two always equals four no matter how you add it up. There was no ambiguity in math; it was about precision and absolutes which made a lot of sense to me as a child. Math is order and order was a trait that I was born with. I liked to organize and to have things in their proper place. With math all the numbers had to be in their respective places for the answer to come out correct. Just like a lot of things in life start off simple and as we expand our minds they become increasingly more complex. We discover more and more dimensions of the concepts or ideas we carry. I learned this evolution of thought in terms of math the hard way as a kid. Since I did so well in my early years with math I thought that I could just stop building on my skills, you know, take a break, and then just jump back in. More specifically I decided in 7th grade that math was not important and I cut corners, then in 9th grade I got interested in again and tried to jump in where the rest of my classmates were. The problem was they had been learning for 2 years, building upon concepts and I had not. What I found out quickly was that I could not be successful. The days of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division had long turned into theories and algebraic equations. Although I had seen this math I did not grasp this math. There is a big difference between exposure and understanding; not just in math but in all facets of our lives.

In today’s world it can be even more difficult to separate exposure from understanding. We have the great opportunity to be exposed to so many things. The borders of our worlds have been torn down. We live in a global economy where up to the minute information is at our fingertips. I can sit in my home in in Florida and read about real time events in Kenya, not just read about them, but a lot of them I can see actually unfold. I can feel as though I have been to Kenya and that I know the people intimately when I have in fact only been exposed to Kenya virtually. I do not have a real deep understanding of what life in Kenya is like. I could not hop a plane, arrive in Kenya and just begin to live as if I had been there for years. I would have to adapt, to learn the ways, to understand the weather patterns, gestures and the Swahili. Understanding comes through experience, not brief exposures.

Leading others requires the same building, expanding, and repeated experiences to arrive at a deeper understanding of how to lead. True diligence of a leader is to remain engaged despite how we feel and to not confuse exposure to a situation as complete understanding. I cannot become a great leader if I engage and disengage based on how I feel. It did not work for me in the area of math growing up and it has never served me well in leadership. As leaders we have to study leadership, apply theories in the real world and allow ourselves to fail. That is right fail, be willing to be unsuccessful as we expand our minds. When circumstances exhaust us and we want to “check out” that is the time we must be the most alert. Understanding will come from these times, more so than when things are going along smoothly. As I reflect back to 7th grade it was not so much that I wanted to “check out” on math, it was more so that I was leaving my comfort zone. I was being challenged and stretched; stretching hurts so good, right.

As we embrace the world of knowledge at our fingertips let us keep in mind that nothing can replace good old fashioned hands on experience. Great leadership, like math, is built one fundamental lesson at a time. The years we have expended as leaders, if we are diligent, hold tremendous value. In order to really impact lives we must be willing to impact our own. I will leave you with this thought to ponder.

“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” –Newt Gingrich


@chrismwalden on Twitter

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