“When I was in school the teachers told me practice makes perfect; then they told me nobody’s perfect so I stopped practicing.” Comedian – Steve Wright

• 61% of Americans think athletic ability is mostly achieved through practice and hard work.
• 25% think it is mostly something with which you are born.
• 14% say athletic ability is a combination of both.

There is one thing we know. Leaders do not stumble into greatness. Leadership excellence and expertise are not developed by accident. So the question is, do hours practicing and learning leadership create high achieving leaders?

Does Practice Make Perfect?
We have all heard the old adage, “practice makes perfect.” The proverb has been traced back to the 1550s-1560s, when its form was ‘Use makes perfect.’ http://www.answers.com/Q/Who_said_practice_makes_perfect. I first heard the statement from my little league coaches who wanted me to get better quickly. But is “practice make perfect” true and if so, why have I not earned a solid gold album for a number one hit because I practice singing all the time!

Vince Lombardi stated it a little differently when he said, “ Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Michael Jordan elaborated on Lombardi’s quote when he said, “You can shoot eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, all you become is good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.“

Bobby Knight once spoke about practice and motivation. He said that when players get in front of 10,000 screaming fans every player has a strong will to win. But Knight said that it was not the will to win that won games. Instead, he said, “It is the will to prepare.” Knight believed in practice yet he observed, “Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

All these quotes indicate two things. First, practice is important. Second, the type of practice matters. There are many people who have perfected the wrong skills. So is this true for leadership, and if so, what kind of practice will benefit leaders?

Does the Length of Time Practicing Matter?
In 1993 psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues stated that success was not a matter of talent but rather what they termed “deliberate practice”. Malcolm Gladwell later popularized this idea in his book Outliers. (Malcolm Gladwell, drawing from but misrepresenting Ericsson’s research — much to the latter’s dismay — announced the magic number was ten thousand hours.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/07/25/actually-practice-doesnt-always-make-perfect-new-study/. His theory? Spending 10,000 hours in practice would build expertise in a given skill area.

Does time in practice really make that much of a difference as opposed to natural abilities, situation or luck? Recently another study looked at the impact of practice on building skill expertise.

“Researchers analyzed the results of 88 different studies of practice in numerous areas including music, sports, education, professions and games. The studies looked at people who were acquiring a new skill and assessed factors including how much they practiced and how good they eventually became at the new skill. Not surprisingly, practicing a new skill had an important role in the learning process.

However, the researchers found that practice alone only accounted for an average of 12 percent of individual differences in performance across various domains. Practice accounted for 26 percent of the variance in games, 21 percent in music, and 18 percent for sports. But when it came to education and professions, practice made far less of a difference, with just 4 percent of the variance attributed to practice in the domain of education and less than 1 percent for professions. https://www.verywell.com/does-practice-really-make-perfect-2795158

This means that anywhere from 88-99% of success in a professional position comes from other factors other than time spent practicing.

Why is this true for professional positions? “Researchers have found that only when “achievement” is defined as rote recall do we discover a strong, linear relationship with time. When the focus is on depth of understanding and sophisticated problem solving, time on task doesn’t predict outcome very well at all – either in reading or math”. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/07/25/actually-practice-doesnt-always-make-perfect-new-study/.

Leadership Implication: Significant amount of time practicing or “studying” leadership will not make a person a leader. (One has only to check out the faculties of most business schools to see the reality of that truth.) This is true because skill development of a leader involves the deep understanding and application of leadership skills to a variety of changing situations some of which require complex problem solving.

Does The Type of Practice Matter?

One of the most famous violin teachers of all time, Ivan Galamian, said: “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. https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

“In his 1993 article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” K. Anders Ericsson and his co-authors presented the idea of a required amount of preparation time and validate the 10-year, 10,000-hours, rule. But more of their work focuses on how world-class individuals are spending their 10,000 hours. Specifically, it isn’t just about 10,000 hours of doing the activity; it’s 10,000 hours of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidburkus/2013/09/25/are-you-wasting-your-10000-hours/#3d97bdbb9cf1

Deliberate practice is not butts in seats training or even “chatting” with a business coach. Long hours of practice are not enough. “Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/25/the-myth-of-practice-makes-perfect/. So what is deliberate practice and could it benefit a leader?

Deliberate practice has several essential components.
1. Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, which has one goal – to improve an aspect of performance.” This means building and improving on the skills a person has. There is a requirement to build a base competency in the essentials. The emphasis here in on a structured approach, not a hot or miss cafeteria style approach to leadership development.

2. Deliberate practice is designed to stretch the individual’s skills and thereby create growth.
It is not practicing what one is already good at, but rather expanding those skills to a new or different setting, situation or area as well as learning new and more difficult skills. Ericsson indicates the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out

As the great golfer Sam Snead once said, “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.” https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

3. Deliberate practice involves practicing with the mind as well as the body.

In a 2013 study, a team of researchers analyzed data collected from almost 850,000 participants as the players learned new skills playing an online game called Axon. While some players practiced the same amount as others, they displayed much higher scores than the others. By analyzing the data, the researchers were able to see that these high-scoring players had more varied performance early on and had spaced out their playing sessions more, suggesting that they had spent more time investigating how the game worked than the other lower-scoring players. These spaced out explorations early on paid off in better performance later as the players became more skilled

The golfer Ben Hogan once explained, “While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.” Hogan would decide in advance where he wanted the ball to go and how to get it there. https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

Deliberate practice involves the development of the ability to focus on a situation and to clearly think about what success looks like, before engaging in the task.

4. Deliberate practice involves honest assessment of performance.
“We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses.” https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1
Leaders who gloss over failure or who glibly attribute failure to external factors fail to put in pale a key element of development.

5. Deliberate practice involves studying and replicating excellence.

When Benjamin Franklin wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he studied his favorite articles from a popular British publication. “Days after he’d read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults. He also worked to improve his sense of language by translating the articles into rhyming verse and then from verse back into prose. Similarly, famous painters sometimes attempt to reproduce the paintings of other masters.” https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

6. Deliberate practice means addressing and resolving gaps quickly.

“In an article titled “It’s Not How Much; It’s How,” published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 2009, University of Texas-Austin professor Robert Duke and his colleagues videotaped advanced piano students as they practiced a difficult passage from a Shostakovich concerto, then ranked the participants by the quality of their ultimate performance. The researchers found no relationship between excellence of performance and how many times the students had practiced the piece or how long they spent practicing. Rather, “the most notable differences between the practice sessions of the top-ranked pianists and the remaining participants,” Duke and his coauthors wrote, “are related to their handling of errors.”
The best pianists, they determined, addressed their mistakes immediately. They identified the precise location and source of each error, and then rehearsed that part again and again until it was corrected. Only then would the best students proceed to the rest of the piece.” http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/25/the-myth-of-practice-makes-perfect/

6. Deliberate practice required a variety of demanding teachers.
“Research on world-class performers has shown that they need different kinds of teachers at different stages of their development. In the beginning, most are coached by local teachers, people who can give generously of their time and praise. Later on, however, it is essential that performers seek out more-advanced teachers to keep improving their skills. Eventually, all top performers work closely with teachers who have themselves reached international levels of achievement.” https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

These coaches are selected to “push” the person into difficult areas where skill or at least mastery of skill does not exist. These coaches are not selected for their genteel demeanor, because they are kind or because they tell leaders what they want to hear.

“The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. The elite performers we studied knew what they were doing right and concentrated on what they were doing wrong. They deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance. https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1

7. Deliberate practice occurs outside the game or competitive environment.

“You don’t improve when you are playing a game because you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. Consider this golf analogy: If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. In fact, professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament.” https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1.

What are implications for deliberate practice in developing leadership skills?

• Analyze yourself. Ask:
o “Am I growing as a leader?”
o “Do I know what skills you are weak in?”
o “Am I spending time engaged in routines I already know, or am I learning new techniques and studying to develop new skills?”
o “Do I stay inside your comfort zone?”
o “Do I get involved in activities or projects that push you to build new skill?”
If you are not growing as leader, this is a problem that will eventually put a cap on your career.
• Recognize that developing leadership skills is important but it is also a long and arduous process. Unlike a twitter message, brevity is not desirable and development cannot be accomplished quickly or overnight. In fact leadership development will continue to occur over the course of a career. Ask: “Do I work on my own skill development regularly? (What is the proof of this?)
• Select an objective and impartial advisor to provide honest and even abrasive feedback. Pinpoint skills that are not up to par or missing. All managers have blind spots so the advisor must have the freedom to provide unvarnished feedback about where leaders are not as good as they think they are. Don’t take feedback personally! Respect that your staff needs honest but unfavorable feedback from time to time. So do you.
• Ensure development is structured. The prophet Isaiah talked about developing when he stated that we build, “line upon line, precept upon precept.” (Isaiah 28:10) In other words skills sequentially grow one on top of another until the entire wall is built. Jay Hall from Teleometrics, International applied this concept to leadership when he stated, “The key to high achieving leadership is to learn to behave like one.” (To Achieve Or Not, The Manager’s Choice”).
• Select coaches based on the specific skill you need to develop. Coaches should change periodically as the skill development needs change. Growing leaders do not put all their development eggs in one basket. Remember coaches have specialties and not all coaches are good in everything. Use the one trick pony to learn their one trick, and then dismount.
Coaches should be selected on two dimensions:
o Do they have actual experience in a significant leadership position and were they successful? Do not trust people who talk a good game but have never achieved success actually doing practicing what they espouse.
o Does the coach have deep capability in the specific area that needs to be addressed? Get proof of the level of capability before you drill a dry well.
Note: Selecting one of the thousands of coaches from the pool of consultants who have added this “capability” to their offerings is a huge mistake. Listing executive coaching on a resume or website (or even on a LinkedIn title) is not proof that the capability exists. (Ask for examples, resume, experience and references).
• Demand that as a part of the development the coach provide cases, situations, simulations and exercises to develop the missing skills. Just talking about how a leader failed after the fact is not proactive development. Developing new skills by practicing on your employees is inefficient, often hurtful and is not a wise development strategy. Be prepared to spend some time away from the worksite to work on skills. (They can do without you for a day or you have real problems to work on!) Be willing and prepared to work on skills and situations that you may not have encountered yet. Also, ensure there is heavy emphasis on the application of skills to new or unique situations. The number of skills you have in your leadership toolbox is important but the ability to apply those tools in different setting is equally as important. Every situation is unique but the tool set will have a common set of tools, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Also, Using skills that are genuine and authentic is important so the skills have to be “you”. Continue to practice skills until they feel natural for you to use.
• Finally, recognize that practice of new skills is only about 1% of the leader’s success. The situation, the environment, the capabilities of the staff and others who collaborate and even some luck have a major bearing on the success of a leader. Stay humble by realizing that no matter how good you become you still have weaknesses and blind spots that need to be addressed and that many times success comes despite you, not because of you!

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