What are you practicing?

Much has been made lately about how many hours are needed to become an expert or highly skilled. Of course, the answers have been greatly simplified, especially for something as nuanced as leadership. My favorite quote about leadership is “learning to lead is like learning to play the violin in public.” It is the public nature of leadership that I believe makes it different than say learning to play golf, or the piano.

Contrary to the popular phrase, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. So then it becomes imperative to know what you are practicing. Every moment of your leadership lives you are practicing something, almost entirely unconsciously. So back to the title – what are you practicing? And how deliberate is that practice?

Deliberate practice
Anders Ericsson has studied practice and determined that a key characteristic of those who improve and develop expertise is that their practice is different. It is what he calls deliberate practice. Two important elements distinguish deliberate practice:
• The practice is focused on a very specific area for improvement
• The practice is repeated and
has feedback loops that allow for self-correction

This is much easier to imagine in practicing golf, for example. We have all seen the person hitting balls on the driving range for hours on end. In many instances that person is simply further ingraining poor habits. Of much more value would be a focused practice. To meet the two elements from above, he might hit far fewer balls but with a very specific practice outcome. Maybe today he will work on hitting a slight fade with his nine-iron. He will have a very specific distance and target in mind. He will be very mindful of how different swing thoughts and patterns create different results. It is almost certain that he will try different things while dialed into the feedback that he gets (ball flight, proximity to target, etc.).

Deliberate leadership

My challenge to you is apply this to your leadership. You will first have to answer the question – do you have a leadership practice? One of the beautiful things about working in systems is that the system can double as a “practice field.” Virtually anything you need to learn can be practiced in an organization. The second question you will have to deal with is – what area of improvement do you care enough about to develop (and follow) a deliberate practice routine?

For example, let’s say that you desire to develop a greater capacity for strategic thinking. You mightplay with all sorts of new behaviors. You could develop a habit of asking different, and bigger, questions. You could practice bringing an appropriate emotional state to important strategic conversations. You could develop a practice of pausing to reflect before responding. You could practice by imagining your industry from the perspective of another industry. And it goes on. The key, as outlined above, is that you can repeat the practice, get feedback on the impact, and adjust. It is deliberate.

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