The ‘Drip System’: How to Learn Leadership

As summer approaches, it’s good to remember some great car trips taken with the family … places we’ve visited on summer forays … and add some thoughts on what it takes to learn leadership through the ‘drip system.’

Since I just returned home from Oregon working with the Bureau of Land Management, I’m thinking today of the Oregon Caves – “one of the few marble caves in the world” – according to their National Park Service website, which features a stream running from its mouth making it “the only NPS cave with an unobstructed link to the ocean.” Caves are cool places, both literally and figuratively.

My favorite cave features are stalactites and stalagmites.

The most obvious of the two, stalactites, are the ones hanging  from above (holding ‘tight’ the docents remind us); formed by slightly acidic rainwater dissolving the limestone (marble in this case), carrying it downward, where a portion dries into a growing ‘icicle.’ Below, drips dry into the companion stalagmite, inching upward, until eventually, a solid column may form as they join.

These take a long time to make you can imagine – just as it does for your leadership ability to truly develop. Enough geology.

‘The Drip System’ is simply the idea that every day on the job you should purposefully make an effort to enhance your leadership ability. Only a minor amount comes along naturally, the rest must be formed. So, read something about leadership (this blog could help in that area), write something, discuss something, or just plain think about it (reflect) – each day. Ask yourself questions. What’s working? What isn’t? What are you trying to accomplish? How have you moved one step forward in that quest this day? What have you done? How are people responding to you? What can you do differently? What are you missing?

These questions, explored regularly, shine a light on the dark areas of your development. Remember that seemingly minor steps eventually end up as major milestones … but you can’t skip to the end. You need a routine, daily effort over a long, long time to pay off.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of well-meaning people who take the time and effort to attend a leadership training session, and then apparently do little to follow-up that event, or put the principles learned into practice – i.e. ‘application.’

I see the ‘above’ work (stalactite) of leadership, as the ‘head work’ – the learning, experiencing, observing, and ongoing exposure to leadership situations in the day-to-day conduct of business. All good things. Some of them acquired by just showing up each day at work … but, many of them coming through intentionally seeking out experiences, assignments, projects, mentors, etc. … not waiting for happenstance.

The doing is the ‘below’ part (stalagmite if you will) where the flow becomes grounded. It’s where you’ve made a concerted effort to apply the idea in a tangible manner.  The way to get good at leadership is to regularly put your knowledge into actions. Thus, over time, your knowing and your doing will merge (i.e. the ‘column’ forms) and you will have earned the capacity to easily connect the things you are learning directly into actions you are taking. This is where the gap between the two goes away.

A friend recently reminded me of some so-called ‘overnight success stories’… and how the majority of them had really been at work on their craft for 10, or 20, or more years before they all of a sudden emerged.

That’s a good reminder for all of us about how the world really operates. Good things are formed over long periods. It’s a drip system … that requires regular drops.

–  Jerry Strom

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