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Fifteen effective leaders from diverse organizational backgrounds described their significant life experiences and the impact upon their development as leaders. Using grounded theory methodology, a theoretical model emerged for assisting leaders absorb greater learning from their various life experiences. Related to the central phenomenon of how effective leaders learn from significant life experiences, four causal conditions of types of experiences were identified as influencing how leaders learn: (1) experiences of adversity or loss; (2) experiences of “stretch assignments”; (3) inspirational experiences; and (4) experiences with conflict. Strategies used by the leaders to absorb learning from their significant experiences were active reflection and seeking to apply the lessons learned for their own leadership as well as to help others. Intervening conditions and conditions pertaining to the context of the learning experiences were also identified through the data. Several consequences or outcomes of leaders’ significant life experiences were also identified through the data: (1) consideration of others; (2) self-awareness; (3) resiliency; (4) change; (5) embracing of life; (6) confidence; and (7) humility.
Six propositions emerged from the data: (1) the influence of family plays a significant role in the response of leaders to life experiences; (2) learning from significant life experiences provides a valuable foundation of case-based knowledge that leaders can utilize in times of uncertainty and change; (3) significant life experiences can serve as the trigger point for the development of Authentic Leadership; (4) significant life experiences can provide a means for developing Emotional Intelligence within leaders; (5) the strategy of reflection used by leaders in significant life experiences can be utilized as an effective learning tool in leadership development; and (6) significant life experiences, as related in this study, may serve as means to develop the Servant Leadership characteristics of altruistic calling, emotional healing and wisdom.