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December 05, 2008



Jim, this makes sense - practice makes perfect. But can you give some examples of how leaders can practice

Alex Guerrero

Jim, I agree with you. I've always felt that in order to enhance, perfect or exceed your leadership ability you must also take the time to practice it. Francisco asked how? Well, that is part of being a leader, finding the way to do something more efficiently and with better results. I have come across management styles where questions about process improvement are reversed back to the questioner. I understand it is done with the intention of helping the individual find the answer, but there are times when individuals are looking for specific guidance from a leader, not asignments. Sometimes it seems to me that the reason why some leaders answer back with a question, it is because they don't know the answer. Perhaps daily involvment in day to day activities and processes can help a leader understand what really is going on in their department, unit, etc, and be able to provide guidance. This could be one form of how you can practice your leadership skills.

Wally Bock

Sorry, Jim. I don't think the question is "Do you practice your craft?" is a helpful question. Managers are practicing their craft every day. Better questions might be "How and how often do you get feedback on your actions?" and "How often do you adjust your next trail based on feedback?"

As for Francisco's question, the answer lies in three things. Be conscious of what you are trying to do and why. Get feedback on your actions, from yourself and anyone else you can get to help? And consciously adjust your behavior based on the feedback.

This doesn't take sophisticated analysis, but it does take effort. People who went through my programs have helped developed simple forms to keep track of how you're doing. But you really don't need anything more than a simple journal to track your feedback.

Jim Kouzes

Thanks Francisco, Alex, and Wally for your comments and questions. This discussion of practice, to me at least, is one of the most important dialogues we can be having right now.

There is no doubt that most managers are "practicing their craft every day," as Wally points out. They are out there working hard 8, 10, 12, and even more hours doing their best. So, my question may have been poorly phrased. What I am asking is "How frequently do you 'deliberately practice' the craft of leading?" That's because the daily execution of our managerial responsibilities—what some might refer to as "practicing the craft" —and the kind of "deliberate practice" that K. Anders Ericsson, and other researchers on expertise, refer to, are not the same thing. When we're talking about "practice," we need to distinguish between the two, and I appreciate the need to be clearer about this distinction.

When I asked Lang Lang about his practice routine, he wasn't talking about the performances he gives in front of an audience. He was talking about the time backstage or in the studio working alone, or with a teacher, learning a new piece or intentionally working to improve how he plays a piece he already knows. This is what we're talking about when we say "deliberate practice." (See my November 12 blog for more information about the elements of deliberate practice.)

Francisco asked for an example of what a leader would do to deliberately practice, and I will be writing a blog specifically about that next week. But let me offer one illustration of how leaders can bring this discipline into their daily routine.

Let's say I get feedback that I am not listening attentively to others and that I'd be much more effective if I'd do a better job at really paying attention to what people are saying. How, then, can I "deliberately practice" listening without, say, having to add another 2 to 3 hours onto my work day? What can I do to intentionally improve my listening skills using a designed learning activity while I am at work? Here are a few thoughts.

For the next week I can:

1. Devote 30 minutes of a regular daily meeting to practicing my listening skills.
2. Set a goal to receive feedback from the meeting attendees that they experienced me as listening to them so well that I could accurately paraphrase what they said before I said something myself.
3. Use the technique of "active listening"—a structured way of responding that requires me to briefly restate the key points of the speaker and to check with the speaker to make sure I am hearing her/him accurately before I respond.
4. Stay focused and use this technique for the entire 30 minutes. While it might feel a little awkward, the point is to stick with the routine until it becomes automatic.
5. Engage a coach from HR, OD, or even another line manager who is accomplished in this skill and ask her/him to observe me in the meeting. After the meeting, s/he can give me feedback and tips on listening. I could also videotape myself during the meeting for replay in the feedback session.

There are many, many other ways I can bring "deliberate practice" into the workplace. This is just one example of how we can take a routine activity we all engage in at work — a meeting — and turn it into a "practice field" for leadership.

As Alex points out, the best leaders are the best learners. They are curious about what is going on around them, always seeking to better understand how things work, how they are leading, and how they can improve their own behavior and the functioning of the organizations. A learning mindset is critical to becoming the best in any field.

Thanks again for commenting, and I hope we hear from more of you.

Ola Aiyegbayo

Hello Jim, great blog post.
Benjamin Disraeli said “the secret of success is for a man to be ready for his time when it comes”. I believe that deliberate practice gets leaders ready for such leadership opportunities when they come their way. Lang Lang’s mastery definitely follows the passion – practice (deliberate) – performance cycle and the 10 year or 10000 hour mastery rule which Gladwell talks about in his Outliers book. You might be interested in the Colvin’s 2006 Fortune article (if you haven’t yet read it) which led to the Talent is Overrated book.


Jim Kouzes

Thanks, Ola, for the link to Geoff Colvin's piece in FORTUNE. Geoff says that article stimulated more reader comments than anything else he had written, and it was that reaction that motivated him to write his book, Talent is Overrated. Malcolm Gladwell has performed a valuable service in popularizing the 10,000 hour rule, and we should also pay homage to the late Herb Simon, of Carnegie Melon, for his pioneering research in the 1960s that informed a lot of the early work on talent development, and to K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, for his investigations of expertise in a wide range of fields. There's a link below to an interesting 2006 article in The Scientific American on "The Expert Mind," in which the author states, "The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born." Check it out.


Ola Aiyegbayo

Thanks, Jim, for the Scientific Mind link. Interesting read. Though research show that experts are made not born, they still need opportunities to be made.
Napoleon Bonaparte stated that “Ability is nothing without opportunity” and I will have to agree with him. For example Lang Lang is fortunate to have a musician father, Guo- ren Lang, who spotted his talent early and encouraged his son to develop his ability by entering him in the right competitions which led to other opportunities.


Other examples include Tiger Woods’ dad: Earl Woods, Lewis Hamilton’s dad: Anthony Hamilton, Andy Murray’s mom: Judy Murray, Venus & Serena Williams’ dad: Richard Williams, Beyonce’s dad: Matthew Knowles. I think the world is robbed of great talents who never fulfil their potential not because they lack the ability but the opportunities to develop it. This is a reason why I feel mentors are crucial in the lives of leaders because they provide the necessary feedback required for their development.

Jim, I will like to hear your view on this.


Jim Kouzes

Ola, thanks for sharing your observations about the role that family, particularly parents, and mentors play in the development of expertise. The research clearly supports your point. Back in 1985 Chicago University Professor Benjamin Bloom published the influential book, "Developing Talent in Young People." He wrote about his study of 120 elite performers who had won international competitions across a wide range of fields including music, art, sports, math and the sciences. No innate traits, such as IQ, differentiated these individuals —except for height and body size in selected sports. But one thing that was in common among these world-class performers was a supportive family and devoted teachers.

Close to home, our family has our own example. Nicholas, my stepson, is a NCAA Division 1 tennis player at UC Davis. For a dozen years he's benefitted from multiple coaches and an extraordinarily supportive mother. She drove him to all his practices and matches, sacrificed holidays for national tournaments, and arranged her work schedule around his tennis and school. He wouldn't be where he is today if it hadn't been for his mom. Additionally, his daily practice, weekly clinics, and one-on-one coaching were essential to his developing into the collegiate player that he is.

The lesson for development of young talent is quite clear and irrefutable. It's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to become world class without a supportive home and community environment.

What are the implications of this for the workplace? One implication might be that to develop leaders we should start young. That would certainly be wonderful. Youth organizations, school programs, religious and community groups can all be places where leadership can be nurtured.

But, if our new recruits haven't had that chance before coming to work, does it mean there's no hope for them? Absolutely not. While I don't believe that there's a fast track to excellence—it's going to take around 10,000 hours and 10 years no matter when you start—if we provide emerging leaders with mentoring, coaching and training early in their careers we stand a lot better chance of developing exceptional leaders than if we wait until they become middle managers. And, if you're a young employee with a desire to become a better leader but don't work in an organization with a formal program, then take the initiative to find a mentor and coach. Many experienced and accomplished leaders would be just delighted to have you as their apprentice.

Mary Healey

I corrected my e-mail above. Thank you.
Love your topics!

Greg Basham

I am always mindful of David McClelland's 3 Needs Theory when it comes to selecting and developing leaders along with instilling in managers that their job is the accomplishment of the organization's objectives through others.

This latter idea was driven home to me by a senior executive who I reported to in his last years before retirement. Prior to working for him, I took pride - as a young manager - in being a working manager and personally took on a full share of the projects in the department. He made it clear that I was being evaluated for leading not doing what he felt that those I was to lead should be doing. It was an invaluable lesson and served me well when I reached the executive levels of that same large insurance company.

If we are to develop leaders in our organizations, we need to ensure that they possess the right balance in the need for power (influence), achievement and affiliation. For some high achievers this means a strengthening of the need to influence and that it seems can only be achieved through practice, sound mentoring and a personal commitment to learning.


hay how can i get in contact with lang lang? i really want to ask him more suff about his practies techniques.

Be A Successful Entrepreneur

Great Stuff But I have to support the saying of PERFECT Practice makes perfect... Perfect Practice also creates mastery- we belive the most important leadership and success trait.

Yo Can See My Blog Post On Leadership and Mastery Here -http://www.beasuccessfulentrepreneur.com/leadership-an-entrepreneurs-path-to-mastery/

Continued Success
"You Can Build a Business That Serves Your Life"

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