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Adversity and Experience as Management Tools

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A core task of every leader -- manager, coach or parent -- is to accelerate the growth of those in his or her charge.

Most leaders tackle this challenge by direct instruction -- telling people what to do. Direct instruction is also the method-of-choice for most training departments. Although instruction is often necessary, it is rarely sufficient for teaching people to cope with life's challenges. Experience is life's great teacher.

Just before I left graduate school, my wife's manager asked for my advice on handling a problem supervisor. It was a very simple question.

By that point, I had read more than 5,000 articles on leadership, yet I had no idea how to answer his question, because I had never managed a supervisor.

I learned that knowledge without experience is of no practical value.

Disseminating information is relatively easy. But how do we, as managers and parents, accelerate growth through experience? Humans grow from diversity (i.e., many different kinds of experiences) and adversity (i.e., tough, nasty times). Successful managers and parents accelerate growth through diversity and adversity.

Growth Through Diversity

Life is complex. Every day we encounter new and unique problems that we must diagnose and resolve. A diverse set of experiences enables us to use bits of information from past events to understand and resolve new challenges.

Let's take, for example, a man who grows up in a small town. After graduating from high school, he works 30 years for a small manufacturing company as a machine operator. Is this person learning to adapt to new challenges? Maybe.

Relative to the outside world, however, he may be lagging. As a rule of thumb, personal growth is not possible when we live inside our comfort zone. If you go to work each day fully confident that you can handle the day's challenges, you may be inside your comfort zone.

In a recent column for The New York Times, David Brooks wrote about his experience reviewing autobiographies of Yale University 50th reunion attendees. He found that some attendees were very satisfied with their life while others were not. The most common cause for dissatisfaction was lack of diverse experiences. These were people who stayed at one company all their lives, those who chose not to take risks, etc. They passively let their lives happen to them.

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