The world is full of mediocre leaders, and I am one of them.
But I don’t want to be mediocre, and I don’t believe I’m condemned to a life sentence of mediocrity. Most of all, if I have any compassion on those I lead, on those subjected to my middling skills, I have to get better.
In Part 1 of this article, I talked about how odd it is that we practice our leadership skills on those we lead. Unlike other high-skill professions (surgeons, speakers, pilots, musicians, etc.) that are practiced off-line, our expectations of our leaders are apparently so low that we allow them to practice while performing.
Not all Practice is Good Practice
In his groundbreaking 1993 paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”, cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson explains “many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of [deliberate] practice”.
According to Ericsson, deliberate practice includes:
“A constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses, rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practicing that most people do, most of the time… yields almost no effect.”
You may have heard about Daniel Letiv and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule – that a key prerequisite to mastery in any skill domain is 10,000 hours of practice. I quote Letiv contemplating that the 10,000-hour rule “doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do”. Not only does Ericsson answer this with “deliberate practice”, but his research also lands on the 10,000-hour figure as a pre-requisite for mastery.
If 10,000 hours (or 5 years of 8 hours of practice 5 days a week) scares the pants off you, it has been established that 10,000 hours is insufficient in the most highly competitive fields such as the Olympics. Performances that were record-setting twenty years ago are now achieved in training by many competitive athletes! Or, maybe looking at this from a more reassuring angle, in pursuits where the bar is set low (like leadership?), significantly fewer than 10,000 hours are required to become outstanding. After all, the U.S. had 1 Olympic athlete in Rio for every 583,213 Americans – as compared to 1 people manager for every 4.7 employees.
As a musician and an athlete, I willingly adopt the discipline of focusing on weaknesses, and that (as Ericsson puts it) getting better “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable”. However, in the realm of leadership, I don’t think I’ve ever invested in any deliberate, effort-laden, not-inherently-enjoyable practice. Given that I spend WAY more time leading people than I do in athletic competition and/or music performance, I profess this lack of investment doesn’t make sense.
Sure, I’ve spent over fifteen years – or 30,000 hours – of my career in positions of formal leadership and am therefore “highly experienced”. However, I grudgingly admit most of these practice hours match Ericsson’s description of “playing for fun and repeating what you already know” and will therefore “yield almost no effect”.
But practice obviously isn’t the only thing that allows leaders to achieve mastery – and we will talk more about that in part three of this series.
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