By Jerry Abrams

We are all under tremendous stress right now. And if you think that you don’t have any time or energy to spare for anything other than just getting through one day at a time, you are not alone. Any effort that does not target some direct improvement seems a luxury at best and foolishness at worst. Yet, I am audaciously going to suggest that some small effort engaged in daily, weekly, and monthly is invaluable and justified—especially so in this extraordinary time!

Very recently, in the leadership development world where I work, much has been learned and shared regarding the use of “Heat Experiences” for rapid and impressive development of leaders, particularly younger, high potential leaders, in places like Silicon Valley.

What makes an experience “hot”? 
When the challenge is unfamiliar and there are many unknowns, when an issue is complex with many stakeholders and competing demands, or when there is a high level of risk, heat levels rise. Over the last few years, a significant amount has been written regarding the need for “Learning Agility” as a key attribute of leaders who will take us through the rapidly changing present and an even more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) future—though many futurists would say that future is now!

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) found that the five factors contributing most to Learning Agility are Innovating, Performing, Reflecting, and Risking (learning enablers), and Defending (an inhibitor).

Between a rock and a hard place, sparks are born
For many years, we have known that something like 70 percent of a leader’s development occurs through direct challenging experiences, both on the job and personally (“Lessons of Experience”), as opposed to formal learning or mentoring by superiors and others.

Most know Lessons of Experience as the 70/20/10 rule of leadership development. Businesses have been spending billions of dollars annually on leadership development, with a significant amount of that on experiential activities or simulations, all in service of providing more meaningful and sustained learning. The aim has been to put leaders into situations that are frequently similar to what they do or will experience in work settings, but with the opportunity to be observed by others or themselves. Simulations also enhance learning by adding the ability to turn up the “heat” in a safe setting without real-world consequences. Of course, while a simulation is good as a practice field, we know that people will respond differently to simulated versus actual events, particularly with regards to risk. It’s easy to be cavalier with Monopoly money; not so with real lives at stake.

From leadership theory to practical application 
But, here and now, we have real heat and real-world consequences. In short, we have one of the most challenging experiences many have ever faced—and may ever face—from which leaders who take the opportunity can learn and develop greatly. The trick is to know how best to learn from these experiences, and in a manner that minimizes distraction from the critical work at hand in order to limit the opportunity cost to addressing the extensive current challenges. The heat is free; now, if the learning can be made inexpensive, the value proposition is solid. 

For many years, the military has conducted “After Action Reviews” (AAR) following periods of action, in all manner of duration and fields of operation, in order to nearly continuously and in near real-time learn and improve in their work. Most often, it is conducted among a collective of people who participated in the action. My suggestion is that you adapt the AAR to an individual leader’s experience.

For teams, an AAR usually consists of four questions like these:

During the most recent action,

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What differed, and why?
  4. What should we do differently or similarly the next time?

For an individual, I suggest the following reformulations:

Over the last day,

  1. What did I plan or intend to do or accomplish?
  2. What did I actually accomplish?
  3. What were the differences (good and bad), and why?
  4. What should I do differently or similarly the next time?

Disciplined learning pays off
It would be good to recognize that the answers to these questions can be examples of leadership behaviors and interpersonal relations, or business operational decisions or actions. As a rhythm, I would suggest spending no more than 5–15 minutes in a daily capture of your responses. This will optimize learning by capturing the information as near to the occurrence of the experience as reasonable while minimizing the effort expended on each personal AAR. 

To extend the opportunity to learn, I would suggest that after one work week—whatever number of days that may be—you spend 30–45 minutes reviewing the previous week’s AARs and capture any trends you find across multiple days. Finally, to gain greater perspective, which frequently can only be gained after some distance from the experiences, I would suggest reviewing all daily and weekly data, looking for additional trends and insights on a monthly schedule. A natural extension and logical conclusion to the process would be to look across multiple months’ data and distill it into your own personal lessons of the experience.

If you put your mind to it for a few moments each day, week, and month, your leadership ability can vastly improve during these immensely challenging times. The heat is free, the learning is inexpensive, and the lessons are invaluable!

Jerry Abrams

Jerry Abrams is a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Faculty with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Master's degree in International Management, Finance and International Political Economy from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. He teaches courses in Leadership, Team Performance, Conflict, Influence, Decisions, Negotiation, and Collaborative Innovation. As a CLiGS Senior Fellow, he participates in developing strategic direction and educational programming, as well as providing advice on business development strategy. He has publications on group decision processes in the journals Military Medicine and Phytopathology. His personal research interests include the intersection of neuroscience, social psychology, and leadership.

*The original version of this post was first published on LinkedIn, April 1, 2020