Sunday, June 12, 2011

You Are What You Practice

Most of us take for granted that practice is essential for excellence in athletics and the performance arts. I find it odd that we don't devote the same amount of effort to develop interpersonal skills and behaviors such as leadership. I strongly believe that we need to practice anything at which we want to excel.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler describes the need for practice in his book Leadership Dojo. He describes behavioral research showing 300 repetitions of an activity are necessary to establish body memory, the ability to enact the correct technique from memory. 3,000 repetitions are required for mastery, the ability to perform the correct technique intuitively without consciously thinking about the steps.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes a 10,000 hour rule. He states that 10,000 hours of practice are required to master a trade. For example, computer programmers such as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Bill Joy (creator of the UNIX operating system) had logged more than 10,000 hours of programming by the dawn of the computer age. Musicians such as Mozart and the Beatles practiced incessantly for years, and by doing so transformed from good to exceptional. Chess masters must practice their trade for approximately a decade to achieve master status.

The same requirement for practice applies to leadership. In order to become great leaders, we need to master the skills of leadership through practice. There are many recognized leadership best practices (such as good listening, providing positive encouragement, setting a positive example, storytelling, etc.) that are just that: best practices. Most of what we do is a combination of habits and routines. Effective leadership behaviors need to be practiced to become habits and second nature.

I have often heard new managers say things such as "I am not good at motivational speeches", or "I am not good at providing encouragement". These self-imposed obstacles keep us from changing. In order to develop a new behavior or master a new skill, we must practice it until it becomes second nature. We are what we practice.

Are your habits and routines consistent with the person you desire to be?
Do your habits and routines help or deter your leadership abilities?
Are you practicing the things that will make you a better leader?

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