The full-on effective use of leadership skills on a regular, consistent, and conscious basis, is a state of mind that is rarely viewed in the same light as the higher level display of skills for things that are physical in nature. Playing the piano, operating on a human brain, or throwing a baseball 60 feet with both accuracy and velocity, are all examples of things in which higher levels of achievenment would seem to be “practice-driven”. Yet, the effective display of leadership has had an enduring causal relationship to practice.
Practice is typically defined as “habitual or customary performance”, “repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency”, or “the action or process of performing or doing something.” At first glance, none of these definitions are inconsistent with the way in which leadership skills are learned, “practiced”, and then put into play. With sports, practice refers to a time period outside a scheduled event where athletes can work on skills they hope to use in the game. For an office, the line between “the game” and every other time is a little more blurry. In some respects, the game is always on.
The adage “practice makes perfect” is one that has undergone a transformation in recent years. It is now accepted that “perfect practice makes perfect”. Cognitive psychologists suggest that deliberate practice is the difference between mediocrity and mastery. Which is great news, but unfortunately, painful at the same time. Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. In a recent article regarding music practice, the “how” was determined to be much more indicative of ultimate performance than the “how much”. The higher ranked pianists took a much more immediate and focused approach to mistakes, although in the end, practiced for the same amount of time as the lower ranked performers. The message – without deliberate and focused practice, even the most talented of performers will plateau. And, unless you are willing to tackle your mistakes, after a certain time, you are just spinning your wheels.
So, from a leadership perspective, what can we take away from this? Kevin Eikenberry describes several ways to “practice” your leadership skills. The net result (learn, reflect, be open to change) are a solid description of how one can practice leadership skills. Most important is the self-awareness to recognize that leadership skills are not inherently downloaded when your business card title changes and you get a new office. For leaders who lead other leaders, you need to support practices which includes not only talking about leadership but directly linking it to the positive outcomes that good leadership provides. It also means ensuring that the role of leadership in your organization is nothing less than the bedrock foundation of everything you are trying to achieve.
Practice can suck. Repeatedly participating in the same exercise, mental or physical, for which you feel no sense of immediate talent and perhaps are not achieving the desired results can be a real drag on the day. It can also be disheartening when you spend what you believe is sufficient time on some aspect of your game and are not immediately rewarded with a response that seems to make the effort worthwhile. I have mentioned grit before. Your ability to have faith in the end of the story while enduring the more immediate low points is one element of your “practice” of the arts of leadership.
It also means that you must identify your most troublesome and uncomfortable venues and deliberately address each in turn. Constantly maneuvering to remain in a position of strength or comfort is a recipe for pain when your manuevering finally fails. For leaders, taking advantage of every opportunity to “practice” might be volunteering or stepping up to something that fills you with dread at its very mention but thus is the path of those who seek to lead. It isn’t always rainbows and unicorns.
In the end, leadership is a conscious choice we have before us every day. We have the power to lead, or be led. We can be selfish or altruistic. We can be ego-driven, or magnanimous. We can decide that it is all about us, or we can decide that we are part of something bigger than us. Practicing leadership means starting each day without expectation that your success from yesterday allows you to be granted today as a reward. It also means that your failure from yesterday in no way determines whether you will fail today.
For the enduring homage to the value of practice, I give you Allen Iverson. For the record, incredible talent but zero team championships in college or as a professional…..and yes, Mr. Iverson, it is possible to make your teammates better by practicing.