Practice makes permanent: succeeding as a leader

In an edited extract from their latest book authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner examine the need to persevere with practice to succeed as a leader

Glenn Michibata, a three-time all-American who played professional tennis for 10 years, spent 12 years as head coach of men’s tennis at Princeton. When we asked him how much time his players had to practice every day, Glenn’s response was, “I tell them they need to practice two hours every day if they want to stay the same, more if they want to get better.”

Glenn’s experience taught him that becoming the best player took more than a brief daily workout, more than a weekly tune-up, more than a monthly coaching session, and more than an annual weekend retreat. Similarly, here’s what Lang Lang, the 33-year-old Chinese concert pianist, said when we asked him about his practice routine. “I practiced 8 hours a day for the first 15 years.” And, now? “Three hours,” he said, “each and every day.” Researchers studying some of the most talented people in history have found that not a single individual produced incredible work without putting in many years of practice.

Raw talent alone is not sufficient to achieve greatness. It takes practice; but just not any kind of practice works, however, say researchers who have studied top performance across a wide variety of domains, such as surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, and firefighting. They report, ‘To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades. However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise.’

‘Intentionality and intensity’

Just because people have the title of manager doesn’t make them leaders and it doesn’t mean they are skillful at leading. Too often, people promoted into managerial positions are good at technical or process matters, working with things, but not particularly comfortable with, skillful in, or even interested in leadership and working closely with people. Similarly, too often people engage in an activity and just assume that they will continue to get better at it over time just because they do it often.

Deep learning just doesn’t happen without intentionality and intensity. It takes a lot more than experiencing something to become the best at it. For example, you learned to drive a car and most likely you’ve driven tens of thousands of miles. And, also most likely, you stopped years ago doing anything intentional to become a better driver, let alone training to become the best driver you can be—for instance, attending the Porsche Sport Driving School in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ask comedian Steve Martin about his rise in comedy and his advice for aspiring performers. His answer is not about how to write jokes or how to find a good agent; he recommends, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” It takes lots of hard work, practicing and polishing your craft to get that good. The same goes for leadership. Mastering leadership takes a lot more than showing up. It takes hours of deliberate practice over lots of years.

Practice, practice, practice

And just what does it mean to practice deliberately? To begin with, you will not engage in just any activity. Instead, you will engage in one designed specifically to improve performance. For example, going to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, especially when you do this just before playing a round. It’s more like warming up. It may be fun, and you may get a bit better, but it’s not the route to becoming the best. The key word here is designed, meaning there is a methodology, and there is a very specific goal. More often than not, you work with an instructor, coach, or teacher to select the goal and the method. Similarly, just visualizing what you would like to happen is very unlikely to get you there. Says University of Calgary Professor Piers Steel, in his book The Procrastination Equation, “The only wealth created by creative visualization is a rich fantasy life.”

Second, practice is not a one time event. Engaging in a designed learning experience just once or twice doesn’t cut it. It has to be done over and over and over again until it’s automatic. That takes hours of repetition. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about the number of hours needed. The time required needs to fit with the skill you’re practicing. Moreover, during repetition you need to pay as much attention to the methodology as to the goal. CrossFit training in the gym, working out with weights, with specified repetitions and varied fitness stations, is a whole lot different from running around your neighborhood while talking with a friend on your mobile. Sloppy execution is not acceptable to top performers.

Another important characteristic of deliberate practice is the availability of feedback. Without knowing how you are doing it’s difficult to gauge whether you’re getting close to your goal and whether you’re executing correctly. Although there may come a time when you’re accomplished enough to assess your own performance, you need a coach, mentor, or some other third party to help analyze how you did. And that person needs to be someone who is capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. As Marcus Stafford, chief executive officer (CEO) at the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Western Australia, explains, “You might not like the feedback but it is the only way you can develop yourself as a leader.” Deliberate practice also requires intense concentration and focus.

Even when the type of activity requires intense physical effort—as in athletic sports—the limiting factor is often more mental than physical. People are more likely to tire from mental strain than physical strain; that’s why deliberate practice sessions are often only about two to three hours in duration.

Furthermore, and let’s be realistic, deliberate practice isn’t much fun. Although you should love what you do, amusement is not the intention of deliberate practice. What keeps the top performers going during the often-grueling practice sessions is not the enjoyment that they are having but the knowledge that they are improving and getting closer to their dream of superior performance.

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