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  • Jessie Brennan, MPH

A Practice of Leadership

Written by Jessie Brennan, Program Manager at Work2Live

A large part of my role here at Work2Live is research. A client has a specific challenge and I go out and learn everything I can about it. What does the research say? What are the current accepted best practices? How can the client put this information into action? Because of my work, I have learned quite a lot about quite a lot of things. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.

Despite being in my role for quite some time, and learning so much, I can’t say I’ve yet mastered many of the skills that we so often promote. I think that my experience is the same for many people that attend our trainings- we love the information while we’re engaging with it, we see the possibility of what the future might hold if we apply it, and when the training ends, we never think of it again. Or we actually put a few things into practice, but when things get busy, they fall off our schedule and then off our radar completely. We’re simply not practicing.

That’s actually not true, we’re practicing something, but maybe not what we want to. Everything that we do: our patterns of behavior, the way we sit, write emails, coordinate with others, listen, engage in (or avoid) difficult conversations, and get upset are all things that we practice. Every time you unconsciously engage in any kind of behavior, you are practicing that behavior. Like a golf swing, or tennis serve that you have spent years practicing, you will find it difficult to change this behavior without deliberate and conscious practice.

Anders Ericsson, editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, has focused his life’s work on understanding how expertise and high-level performance is developed. According to him, not all practice is created equal. It is a particular type of practice, which Ericsson christened ‘deliberate practice’, that makes the difference. Therefore, practice and experience are not the same thing. One can have years of experience and not have engaged in significant deliberate practice.

Ericsson gives this example in a Harvard Business Review article:

To illustrate this point let’s imagine that you are playing golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills by driving and putting more balls and engaging in more games, until your strokes become automatic: you’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.

Neuroscience research shows that struggling – pushing yourself to the edge of your performance, making mistakes, slowly figuring how to correct those mistakes, and then pushing some more – wraps more myelin around our neurons. High performers may sing or play the same piece of music as someone else, but they are constantly searching for improvement. True improvement requires that we pay mindful attention to pushing our edges and correcting mistakes.

What makes this difficult is our brain’s habit of automating processes and behavior. Consider the process of learning how to drive. It’s safe to say that when you first began the process of learning to drive, every time you got into the driver’s seat you were improving some skill- getting quicker at checking mirrors, improving your ability to scan your field of vision, easing more gently on and off the brake. After a period of time, once the basic skills have been learned and practiced enough, driving becomes automatic; we focus on where we are going, and our driving performance does not substantially improve. In fact, as we gain confidence, we tend to pick up bad habits in driving, so for some of us it could be argued that our driving skill decreases. In all things, when we go to automatic, we are no longer clear and focused on our learning. We are repeating and reinforcing what we already know.

Overcoming the mind’s drive to automaticity, is crucial for the development of leadership, and for distinguishing between experience and deliberate practice. There are many managers that may have years of experience, but who are also running on automatic in regards to how they lead. This leaves them completely unaware of the areas in which they could improve and how to go about doing so. Being mindful about our actions is an excellent starting point to meaningfully improving leadership.

Who we are as a leader is developed through practice – taking the actions of leadership makes you a better leader. If you want to truly be a leader who can make a difference in the world or your organization, then self-awareness becomes a starting point. From here, you can then build your leadership capability through self-cultivation and dedicated, consistent practice.

What does deliberate practice look like in leadership? Pete Hamill, author of the book Embodied Leadership, suggests that you keep a notebook and make notes on what you are learning. Seek opportunities to apply and use the knowledge you have gathered as soon as you get it. If you learn it, make a note of it, and then use it that same day, it is more likely to stay with you for the long term. He also suggests aiming for a target of two hours of deliberate practice (on average) per day. This may sound like a lot in a busy day, but in reality, a large proportion of that practice will be done whilst you are getting on with the things you do anyway- you’ll just be doing them slightly differently.

This recommendation reminds me of a practice we suggest for goal-setting, which is the practice of setting daily intentions. You are more likely to make choices and take actions that are in-line with your long-term goals if you set daily intentions. What have you learned that you have been meaning to incorporate into your leadership practices? Maybe you’ve been meaning to give more feedback, apply mindfulness in your day-to-day interactions, build restorative practices into your schedule. Is there an intention that you can set each day that would move you towards that goal? Move you a little closer to mastery? I, for one, am beginning this practice today with the intention of bringing a positive, uplifting energy into every workplace interaction that I have- something that I know contributes greatly to the success of a team.

When it feels like you don’t have time to practice, remind yourself that you are practicing something. Is it what you want to be practicing? Is it helping you become the leader that you most want to be? It is through the most deliberate actions that we can practice ourselves into a new way of being.


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