The Practice of Leadership

The Practice of Leadership

While hosting The Tonight Show, Jay Leno spent Sunday evenings one town over from us, in Hermosa Beach. His destination: the Comedy and Magic Club. Every Sunday a full house eating mediocre calamari and two required drink purchases.

A few times, I caught Leno performing. And it was fascinating.

He took the stage with a pile of white index cards in hard. When a joke bombed, he tossed the index card into the crowd. It was trash to him at that point.

But the jokes that worked, you’d hear those again word-for-word broadcast to all of America later in the week.

Leno earned earned $25M a year, had a garage filled with collector's cars...he still showed up every Sunday to practice.

The importance of practice is lauded by professionals across fields. An 18 year-old Kobe Bryant spent mornings shooting jump shots in the dark for two hours before the rest of the Lakers arrived. To improve his writing, Ben Franklin rewrote every line of his favorite publication, The Spectator, into his own words. Every single Grandmaster in chess has practiced 3,000 hours, many 10x that count. Mozart’s self-described daily routine had him writing, teaching, or playing music twelve hours a day. Thomas Edison trialled 6,000 filaments to find the one that became Patent 223,898 - the electric lamp.

Some high-stakes fields, like becoming a doctor have practice mandated in the study. Most residents put in 80+ hour weeks on the regular.

Those who want to perform at the top level are committed to practice. But this same ethos hasn’t translated to business and leadership.

How Do You Practice Leadership?

Basketball players have jumpshots. Pianists have pieces of music. The analog is for leaders isn’t immediately obvious.

For lack of knowing, we read books.

This week alone I’ve had three leaders ask me what book they should read (and it’s only Thursday as I type this). And yes, there are some fantastic books out there, but knowledge is not learning.

Reading about music theory won’t having you playing Ode to Joy by the end of the week. No prose will train you on how to hit the game-winning shot. And Drucker’s The Effective Executive will not transform you into an effective executive. Although he will offer you an important hint: “The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”

Practice is how we take wisdom - both from others and about ourselves - and put it into action.

Fortunately, cognitive psychologist, Anders Ericsson spent decades studying top experts to clarify the exact traits that drive performance and learning. He calls it deliberate practice. It is a formula for becoming a better leader.

Well-Defined, Specific Goals

Deliberate practice begins by honing in your learning agenda to specific skills or areas that you want (or need) to develop.

Most leaders - if they’re being honest with themselves can quickly identify a few specific areas for improvement. If you’re truly stumped, go ahead and reach for the bookshelf for some ideas. Or better yet ask a few people that you lead what you might work on.

Goals can be as microtargeted as: giving feedback more candidly, noticing what gives you energy in your work, or stepping back in conversations that don’t require a strong voice from you. Or they might be a touch broader: Aligning the team on a shared vision, communicating more effectively, or developing personal routines to support yourself.

What matters is that you identify specific skills or situations to focus on, not knowledge.

Developing Mental Models

Ericsson points next to developing new mental models to support your effectiveness in your focus area. He defines these as “preexisting patterns of information—facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on—that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations.”

You’re already using mental models every day to reduce your cognitive load. Part of the work here is realizing the models currently at play in relation to your focus area and then questioning whether they serve the right purpose.

For example, if your team struggles with ineffective consensus decision making you might try a different approach like Decide & Commit to see if it fits.

Experts are able to trust their intuition precisely because their history of experiences have solidified from a learned practice, facilitated by multiple feedback loops. And so the power of developing mental models is not in consciously applying one to a situation but rather in having done that so many times prior that it has already reshaped how you see the world (1).

Full Attention, Regular Feedback

With the aim of building new mental models, Ericsson cautions: “you don’t build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over”

This showcases two important components of deliberate practice. First, you need to be giving your focus area your full attention and taking conscious intentional actions to try new approaches. And then you need feedback to be aware of the adjustments to be made.

With each new action, you ask: Am I getting the results I intend to? Sometimes you can see the answer plainly. Often in leadership, you’ll need feedback from other people to see the full impact of your practice.

Finding the Edge

This brings us to the last key component, deliberate practice requires that you move out of your comfort zone.

Asking for feedback from the people that you lead can be scary. Trying and failing at new approaches won’t feel good. Giving your full attention to a single focus area might feel like something you don’t have time or bandwidth for.

But growth doesn’t happen where you’re comfortable.

Hans Selye, the so called “father of stress research,” in his studies uncovered the idea of ‘eustress’ or beneficial stress. Eustress boosted both learning and performance in those who push the edge of what’s possible. There’s a flip side too. He also found the importance of pushing past your edge - into distress. There performance degraded, learning became a challenge (2).

As golf champion Sam Snead once put it, “It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.”

Building a Practice through Loops of Learning

Combining the components of deliberate practice gives you the formula for growing as a leader: Choose a skill to focus on, develop mental models that support you by bringing your full attention to trying new things and gathering feedback, all of which will require you to push out of your comfort zone

The key to making this work though is through iterative loops of learning.

Psychology researcher Dean Keith Simonton studies demonstrated that the most successful people weren’t that way due to any sort of inner genius, but purely because they generated the most ideas (3). They tried and failed the most. It’s a simple bet really: more shots on goal will lead to more goals.

The good news for leader is that there's learning material all around us in our work; unlike the cellist who needs their instrument to practice. You are the instrument, you just need to show up for practice.

Beginning Your Practice

The famous violin teacher, Ivan Galamian, observed: “If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher.” (4)

A mentor or a coach is a proven method for creating the accountability and rigorous focus needed to deliberately practice. Having worked with others facing similar challenges, they’re likely to be able to guide you to new approaches to try and providing feedback as you go along. No different than a sports coach, just a different modality.

If working one-on-one with someone isn’t a fit, journalling can be a reasonable fill in. The simple act of putting pen to paper forces reflection as we capture our experiences and thoughts in words. It quite literally gives meaning to the events of your life. This approach requires you supply the accountability around keeping the learning loops happening.

There are certainly other way to engage in deliberate practice too. But take care to include all of the elements above as it was the combination that makes the model work. For now, find that first focus area and get to the practice field.

1 - How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens
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