Success-based learning has been around for a while. Most business schools put MBA students through endless piles of cases depicting top-ranking companies and executives as models to be copied. Most leadership and personal growth books also seek out winners of all kinds to help readers learn how to improve their own performance. But here’s the catch: success-based learning is pretty useless when it comes to leadership skills. Millions are being wasted on entertaining theoretical discussions, feel-good corporate executive development programs, and thought-provoking articles and conferences. It’s about time we took the hint: what worked for others often doesn’t necessarily work for us.

“How-to” approaches are simple and methodical. They work brilliantly for technical knowledge. From cavemen huddling around a warm fire thousands of years ago, teaching youngsters how to make an axe out of a stone, to the many videos you can find on youtube about how to solve most any technological challenge today. We look at the successful result, break down its ingredients, retrace all steps and instructions involved in making it happen, and repeat until we get it right. Easy-peasy lemon squeezy!

Until we try to replicate Obama’s communication savvy, or Mark Zuckerberg’s much admired entrepreneurial prowess, Steve Jobs’ market vision, or any other leadership example endlessly portrayed all over the media. Seven habits, six steps, eight qualities, nine secrets…you name it…there is no end to the pile of irrefutable, irresistible methods “we can’t afford to miss” to “maximize our potential”. Even I must confess to promising readers “success in six cups of coffee” in my first book about networking a few years back.

It’s like trying to teach our horse snazzy tricks watched in another horse’s performance.

Our horse might spook at the sight of the hoop he’s supposed to jump through, or hate places full of people and noise. He may be sloppy about overcoming obstacles or lack the necessary energy. The diet and training routine that prepares another horse for stardom may be completely inadequate for our own. In fact, amazing race champions often come out of nowhere, like “Noozhoh Canarias”, a Spanish horse from Canary Islands.

Lacking any relevant pedigree, and completely unknown to experts and high-power investors in the race industry, this unlikely champion miraculously won several international races last year, going from an 11.000 euro purchase price to a 1.5 million euro valuation in less than twelve months. Think of how many conscientious race horse breeders followed scientifically proven “how to” methods without exception, only to fall behind Noozhoh.

Like horses, our human body vehicles grow to develop a unique set of preferences, sensitivities and natural talents, making us fit for very different kinds of races or shows. When we try to dress up or perform as somebody else, we miss out on what we’re really good at. At best we become cheap imitators of those we are trying to emulate. As that much pursued promise of success eludes us year after year, we become exhausted with the impossible challenge of attempting to live somebody else’s life. 

We can learn how to do an especially convincing voice tone like our favorite news anchor from television.

We can’t, however, learn how to enjoy doing it, or how to do it spontaneously, before having to think. Which makes for a whole world of difference, doesn’t it? Leading others is the same. If we’re not authentic about it, it just doesn’t work. Also, we are actually more sensitive to failure than we are to success. If only because messing up usually hurts. While we breeze through happy conquests in life, sometimes so fast we barely get a minute –or an inclination– to stop and reflect on what we may be doing wrong, there’s no avoiding the pain of our biggest fiascos.

They sting in our memories for a long time afterwards, clearly alerting us of the reactions and thought processes we need to avoid going forward…even when we ignore our own alerts and fall right into the same trap again. And again. And again. We learn from failure by repetition. This is where repetition actually does bring us to success.

Each recreation of past downfalls can provide lots of valuable feedback about what we missed in our thinking, why we followed an impulse that was clearly ill intended, and most importantly, which feelings and emotional interpretations of the business situation were moving us to replay the very same mess all over again. If our mistakes get smaller, if it takes us less time to become aware of them, then real, long-term, spontaneous learning is at play.

Our unconscious body is carefully registering the diminished pain and reduced struggle of a smarter response, gradually getting closer to effortless perfection.

We then forget about such experiences and our attention moves on to the next pattern of error that most hurts. All we need to do is actually pay attention to our mistakes instead of ignoring them. Could it be so simple? Ask babies. Human babies are the most efficient learning machines on the planet.

Think of all they achieve in their first three years of life: they acquire full control of motor skills, learn to talk and interact with others; they develop new notions of time and space all the time, and they master the use of many complex tools like tooth brushes, forks and even ipads. Why? Because they focus all their attention and resources on correcting their patterns of failure until total dissolution. If you thought that your path to success was about trying to forget past fiascos, moving on and hoping you’ll be better in the future, think again.

Dismiss business cases and hero stories about how other people manage their bodies –or horses- to get what they want. Get to know your own body-horse and help it excel at what it really loves to do in clean, effortless flow. Focus all your attention and resources on your own pattern of error, feel the pain of failure and help it guide your body towards better future attempts. Enjoy the same thrill every baby feels when conquering each patiently pursued milestone of development. Success will find you before you know it!