The best leadership lessons from life

Understand the transferable skills life experience can give leaders, and discover how former gang leader Karl Lokko used what he learned to build a successful career as an activist, campaigner and entrepreneur.


Good or bad, every life experience teaches you something, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

Ultimately, lessons from everyday life can make you a better leader. Consciously or subconsciously, these valuable transferable skills inform the way you motivate and inspire your teams.

Discover what shapes a great boss and how former gang leader Karl Lokko used the leadership lessons he learned on the streets to build a successful career as an activist, campaigner and entrepreneur.

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Gang leader turned entrepreneur, Karl Lokko reflects on his early leadership experiences and what he learned from them.

Are leaders born or made?

Are leaders born or made?

Whether people are born leaders or learn to lead over time has been a hotly debated topic for centuries, with countless theories, studies and comments on the subject.

One school of thought, the Great Man Theory, suggests that some people naturally possess leadership qualities like charisma, wisdom, assertiveness and courage that set them apart from others and help them excel in positions of power and authority.

Others believe that leaders develop their skills over time with practice, experience and a positive growth mindset. Behaviorist Theory for instance, takes the view that a person’s leadership abilities are a product of their environment – and that anyone is capable of becoming a leader with the right training and instruction. And Greek philosopher Aristotle once said: “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.” The foremost influencer of his day believed that, to become a leader, you must first be a follower to properly understand the needs of your team.

So which is it – born or made? Turns out, it’s a bit of both. Scientific studies show that leadership is 30% genetic and 70% learned. A person can be born with natural leadership qualities, but they can also learn new skills and grow over time through their experiences.

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Top 10 leadership lessons from experience

Top 10 leadership lessons from experience

Just like children learn through play, most adults still learn best by doing. The 70/20/10 model, a popular framework for learning and development, shows how we build our knowledge, identifying that:

  • 70% of learning happens through on-the-job experience

  • 20% of learning happens socially through colleagues and friends

  • 10% of learning happens through formal training and education

So, here’s a rundown of how vital skills you learn from everyday experience can make you a better leader.

1. Resilience

Resilience is learned from an early age. Perhaps you felt disappointed at not being picked for the school sports team, or a grandparent’s declining health made you feel anxious. Or perhaps you come from a difficult background. Finding a way to cope with setbacks builds character and is one of the most important leadership lessons learned.

Leading isn’t easy and, at times, you’ll need to make tough decisions, perhaps even moving in a different direction altogether, as Karl did. But understanding how to stay positive in the face of adversity helps you continually move forward.

2. Stepping outside your comfort zone

Times in your life when you’ve faced your fears and headed into the unknown are among the most valuable leadership lessons you can learn. That’s because you find out a lot about yourself and what makes you tick. Although no one wants to spend their whole career in a state of unease, it’s a worthwhile part of leadership development to step outside your comfort zone from time to time.

3. Flexibility

If something isn’t working, leaders need to be confident enough to change course. And they need to have the motivational skills to take their teams with them. This includes being open and telling people why changes need to be made.

Watch the video

Karl Lokko talks about how he realized he needed to change direction, the steps he took to pivot, and why you need to 'aim for the beyond.'

4. Networking

Networking begins earlier than you might think. You join clubs, try out for sports teams and have weekend jobs working with people from different backgrounds.

The earlier you learn how to interact with people who aren’t the same as you, the greater your networking circle will be. This can bring fresh insight when you need to workshop a new idea. As Karl says, “Every skill you have should be used to get a network. Without people, ideas don’t see life.”

5. Delegation

As Karl learned as a gang leader, he was brilliant at some things but not so hot at others. He discovered that, by sharing responsibility, it raised everyone up in his crew and built trust.

Being a good leader isn’t about doing everything yourself and taking all the glory. It sometimes means taking a back seat so others can step up too. Good leaders recognize their strengths and aren’t afraid to pass responsibility on to others.

Watch the video

How to become essential to your organization, why you need to give the ‘hidden alumni’ a chance and why leaders need to leave the palace.

6. Conflict resolution

As you get older, you learn the best ways to handle conflict. This could be through disagreements with family members or keeping your cool in volatile situations. The best leaders can spot potential flare-ups early and defuse tensions before they boil over – a useful skill when you consider workplace conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion a year.

7. Learning from mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. But let’s face it, you learn a lot more when things go wrong than when everything runs smoothly.

Every successful leader has a story to tell about an epic fail they’ve had in their past. But what sets them apart is the mindset to keep going and make sure they get it right next time.

8. Being able to reflect

Reflection is crucial to the learning process. It’s not an easy thing to take an honest look at your strengths, weaknesses and areas that need improving. But it’s how you grow as a leader and prepare for future challenges.

9. Multi-tasking and prioritization

From looking after your kids and other family members to making sure all your bills are paid on time, juggling tasks in everyday life can stand you in good stead in a work environment. Great leaders are well organized and have an instinct for separating tasks into order of importance.

10. Being an inspiring leader

The people who have inspired you in your life – whether a parent or a teacher who believed in you – can have a lasting impact on how you treat others. You can also learn lessons from great leaders you admire. Using them as motivation can turn you into an inspirational leader yourself.

As former US president John Quincy Adams put it, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

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