I did not take ownership of my professional development and deliberately commit toward self-development until almost four years into my military career. But even when I did start with habits like developmental reading, choices such as my book selection and approach were not intentional; my efforts were scattered and random. And it was still years after starting until I discovered personal book favorites that had major impacts on my life and leadership. I have spent years since then repeatedly saying, “I wish I read (or knew about) this years ago before I was a platoon leader or company commander.”
I share this to disclose something I have come to eventually realize: that our self-development efforts can be frustrating sometimes. My efforts over the years are littered with feelings of personal regret and disappointment for not knowing or doing the things I learn through self-development earlier. After I gain new knowledge or ideas on how to lead better through my self-development habits, I quickly default to thinking, “I wish I knew this years ago!” and “this would have made me a better platoon leader or commander.”
But I recently found this quote by Maya Angelou – an American poet, singer, and civil rights activist – and it immediately adjusted my perspective and personal worries on my self-development:
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
I absolutely believe this concept applies to many areas of life and leadership. However, I think it applies to our enduring leader self-development pursuits as well. We cannot expect to know all and be all, especially early in our careers or leadership journey. Growth takes time. So, as Maya Angelou reminds us – we need to do the best we can, always. But once we do know better through our continued education, self-development, and experiences – we must do better. We cannot live and lead with regret, thinking we failed for learning a new idea “too late” in our career. Leader development is a life-long pursuit where we are consistently seeking to know – and be – better.
So, I offer a few mental shifts for leaders to consider as we reflect on Maya’s wise words and what they mean for our continued development. This is not about how to go about our self-development efforts, but more about perspectives we should maintain as we do.
- Self-Development is a life-long pursuit: Leader development occurs daily, not in a day. But it is also continuous…and life-long. We will spend our entire lives in the iterative cycle of doing our best, eventually knowing better, and then doing better. We cannot be victims of our circumstances or have regrets for learning “too late.” We all have our own starting points and timelines.
- We have a responsibility when we gain new knowledge through self-development, reflection, and experiences: Though we should have expectations on when we should know better, we do certainly have expectations once we know better. After gleaning lessons from our self-development, reflections, or experiences, we have an inherent leader obligation to integrate them into our leadership so we can do better.
- Help others become better earlier: Even if I learn certain leader lessons later in my career, I also have an intrinsic obligation to try and help others know and do better earlier than I did. I aim to inspire and equip others to know better so they can do better as early as possible. Leaders make other leaders; we must aim to develop a learning mindset in others.
- We must commit to always doing our best…and doing better: I am always committed to doing the best I can to lead and influence others with what I know at any given time. I am also committed to consistently learning to knowing better so that I can do even better in the future. Both are equally important.
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