The Practice of Leadership


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. 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 is not all it takes.

Perhaps you have heard the story about the first time visitors to New York City who asked a local how to get to Carnegie Hall. He responded, “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. It is not enough to attend a couple of training sessions each year and then read a few books on the topic. There is surely benefit in being exposed to a wide variety of leadership approaches. But exposure to the “latest and greatest,” which seems to change almost monthly, can in fact make it more difficult to stay focused on those skills that most need to be practiced and refined.

Learning about leadership is not the same thing as learning to lead. They certainly go together, but to earn the 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, hard work, trying, failing, trying again, and so forth. It takes practice, practice, practice.

I once watched Olympian Michelle Kwan compete at the US Women’s Figure Skating Championship. Everyone in the arena that night knew we were witnessing a truly world class athlete. After marveling at her breath-taking performance, I remember thinking about how much of her life she must have spent practicing – and falling – and adjusting – and practicing some more. One can only imagine the number of things, large and small, that she has had to master to become the extraordinary performer she is today.

It is easy to find examples of the relationship between practice and extraordinary performance. On the day he died, Pablo Casals, the great cellist, 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 directly 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 these endeavors, it is not so, for many people aspiring to be better leaders. There is a compelling reason why.

Athletes, musicians and others practice and practice to get prepared for scheduled performance times, like a concert or an Olympic competition. It is at these times when they must be prepared to demonstrate their best, and when they are also judged and evaluated. They practice away from the spotlight (and critics) and frequently, if not always, have a personal teacher or coach close by, helping them get better step by step. Practice is their safe time to test, make mistakes, learn and improve.

In what environment do leaders practice? That’s right – on stage, in the presence of the people they are attempting to lead, and usually without the supporting hand of a mentor or coach. Aspiring leaders do not enjoy a private, safe haven in which to sharpen their skills. They must practice in the public spotlight, in real time, and when they come up short, important people see it. They seldom get private counseling from a coach nor the opportunity to immediately try again. Their mistakes, awkwardness and appearance of incompetence, all natural parts of learning, are in full view. Not a very comfortable situation, is it!

So a “work in progress leader” is supposed to inspire commitment from his or her followers, while everyday those same followers (who don’t forget, are also the leader’s toughest judges and critics) continue to see straightforward evidence that the leader’s skills are not fully polished. No wonder a lot of aspiring leaders keep a low profile and make slow progress. Practice is just too risky.

There are a couple of 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.

Finally, there is a message for those of you who are trying to help your managers become leaders. You need to be very encouraging and supporting of them. You need to make it safe for them to try new behaviors, and work with them to help them improve. You need to be aware of the emotional toll that occurs with learning, and help them overcome the feelings of inadequacy they may be frequently feeling. And then of course, you must always look for ways to recognize the progress they are making, and continue to re-assure them that their struggles are for a truly important and worthy goal.

Copyright 2000 International Leadership Associates