How “Rookie Smarts” Fired Up my Leadership Engine

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“Name a time in your leadership when you felt an exhilarating rush of enthusiasm.”

When I was recently asked that question in a coaching session I was surprised at where my mind didn’t go, and to where it did go.

While I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced a few accomplishments along the journey, when I thought of that “exhilarating rush of enthusiasm” my mind didn’t race to these moments. Instead I found myself thinking back on episodes when I was learning, stretching and growing.

One episode in particular comes to mind that perfectly illustrated what Liz Wiseman calls Rookie Smarts.


In her insightful talk at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit, Wiseman drew on the research she had captured in her Rookie Smarts book, and she pointed out that as leaders we are often at our best when we know the least. She pointed out that, while experience has many advantages, it can also lead to a stale, safe way of operating.

Similarly when we deliberately place ourselves in places where we have very little experience there can be some advantages. Certainly, she pointed out, this is where we position ourselves for growth.

The moment I vividly recalled was in early 2009. I had recently been asked to lead Willow Creek Association Canada, and one of my first challenges was to find ways to more effectively connect our ministry with leaders across this vast nation.

A colleague suggested that the best way for me to do this was through social media.

I had just one small problem.

I didn’t know anything about social media. I’m not sure I could have even defined the term.

I knew nothing of blogging, I had barely heard of Twitter, and Facebook utterly mystified me. I was, in every sense of the word, a complete and utter rookie.

Fortunately, we had a sharp young leader on our team who was something of a social media expert, and for several months he coached me on the basics of this dynamic, ever-changing world of social media.

And quite apart from any success we achieved by leveraging social media to connect with leaders, the greatest benefit I derived from all of this was simply to tap in to that unique sensation of wonderment we achieve when we are in a high-stakes growth mode.

Wiseman’s Summit talk served to remind me to regularly, intentionally, place myself in these rookie situations.

How? Wiseman outlined five strategies:

  • If things are running smoothly, throw away your notes.
  • If you already have all the answers, ask the questions
  • If you are getting positive feedback, admit what you don’t know.
  • If you’ve become a mentor, take a vacation from being in charge.
  • If you’re busy, but bored, intentionally place yourself in a new learning situation.

As Wiseman reminded us, experience in leadership has many advantages, but it poses a few pitfalls as well. To avoid these pitfalls we need to tap into a sometimes untested dynamic in our leadership; our rookie smarts.

And let the “exhilarating rush of enthusiasm” fire us up all over again.



the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.

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