The Practice of Leadership

Steve Coats

A few years ago, I bought a piano. I had always wanted to play. Yet, in a relatively short time, I determined that buying this marvelous instrument was most likely a blunder. The truth was that although I very much wanted to play the piano, I discovered that I did not want to learn to play the piano.

When it comes to leadership development, that same perspective is alive and well within many organizations. It is quite common to hear, "we want our managers to be leaders." But this transformation does not occur just because it is a new organizational mantra. People have to learn to be better leaders. And like all learning, it takes time and commitment. But that's not all. . .

You may recall the story of the first-time visitor to New York City who asked a local how to get to Carnegie Hall. The response? "Practice, practice, practice." Besides time and commitment, learning to lead takes practice. Managers do not suddenly turn into leaders because of a new title, promotion, or even self-proclamation. They must learn and practice new skills, and become more confident and competent in applying them. Attending a couple of training sessions each year is not enough, nor is reading a few books on the topic. While being exposed to a wide variety of leadership approaches often is beneficial, exposure to the "latest and greatest" (which seems to change almost monthly) can make it even more difficult to stay focused on those skills that most need to be practiced and refined.

And learning about leadership is not the same thing as learning to lead. They certainly go together, but to earn an invitation to the Carnegie Hall of leadership, you must be able to demonstrate your great talent, not just your knowledge. Becoming proficient in leadership or any other endeavor requires vigilance and hard work: trying, failing, trying again, and on and on. It takes practice, practice, practice.

It is easy to find examples of the relationship between practice and extraordinary performance. As I watched the stunning accomplishments of athletes at the recently completed Beijing Olympics, I was reminded of the time I saw Olympian Michelle Kwan compete at the U.S. Women's Figure Skating Championship. All of us in the arena that night knew we were witnessing a truly world-class athlete. After marveling at her breathtaking performance, I remember thinking how much of her life she must have dedicated to practicing - falling - adjusting - and practicing some more. One can only imagine the number of things-large and small-that she had to master to become the extraordinary performer she ultimately became.

Or consider Pablo Casals, the great cellist. On the day he died, he was reported to have spent the morning practicing scales. There are already legendary tales about the amount of time Tiger Woods spends on the golf course, immediately before and after competitions, perfecting his game. Even pilots-from commercial air carriers to the space shuttle-spend time in simulators, honing the skills they need to be their best.

As natural as practice may be for others who achieve extraordinary performance in professions such as these, that is not the case for many people aspiring to be better leaders. And there is a compelling reason why.

Athletes, musicians, and many others in similar professions practice and practice to prepare for scheduled performance times. Whether a concert or an Olympic competition, these are times when they must demonstrate their best, when they are judged and evaluated. They practice away from the spotlight (and critics) and frequently, if not always, with a teacher or coach close by to help them develop their talent step-by-step. Practice is their safe time to test, make mistakes, struggle, learn and improve.

But for leaders, in what environment do we get to practice? That's right: we are on stage, in the presence of the people we are attempting to lead, and usually without the supporting hand of a mentor or coach. Aspiring leaders do not enjoy a private, safe haven. Practice takes place in the public spotlight, in real time. And when performance comes up short, important people see it. Often without the benefit of private counseling from a coach or the opportunity to immediately try again, mistakes, awkwardness, and appearance of incompetence-all natural parts of learning-are in full view. Not a very comfortable situation, is it!

So 'work-in-progress leaders' are asked to inspire commitment from followers who, everyday, see evidence that their skills are not fully polished. (And, don't forget, it is these same followers that are also a leader's toughest judges and critics.) No wonder a lot of aspiring leaders keep a low profile and make slow progress. Practice is just too risky.

However, there are lessons out of all of this. First, if you are personally striving to become a better leader, take heart! It is going to take great courage and resolve. You must be willing to put your "less than perfect performances" in the spotlight for everyone to see. You are going to make a lot of mistakes as you practice and learn, and those will often bruise the relationships you are trying to build with your people. But despite the discomfort, you must acknowledge your shortcomings, continue to learn from the mistakes, and keep working at sharpening the skills necessary to make you a better leader. Not practicing is simply not an option.

And there also is a lesson here for those who are trying to help managers become leaders. Be very encouraging and supportive. Make it safe for them to try new behaviors and work with them to help them improve. Be aware of the emotional toll that learning takes and help them overcome the feelings of inadequacy they may often experience. And of course, look for ways to recognize the progress they are making and continually reassure them that their struggles are for a truly important and worthy goal.

Steve Coats is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. He is also a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Master Facilitator. For nearly twenty years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers in several countries around the world. Steve can be contacted at stevec@i-lead.com.

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