Observations of Greatness: Strumming the Leadership Blues

What does it take to become “world-class”? How do you become a world-class performer? Is it destiny, or can anyone become great?

I hear stories of leaders who are considered great. They show up on succession plans as “key talent” and are designated as someone the organization wants to keep and develop. This thought about talent, however is where problems arise. Many organizations do a great job of taking technical experts and developing them into terrible leaders. And this stems from the definition of “talent”.

Talent is the output of dedication and practice.

These key technical experts are very good at the technical subject matter for which they were recognized, but they are not prepared to become leaders. They have insufficient background to simply assume a leadership role.

Childhood Example

When I was twelve yeas old I received my first guitar for Christmas. I took formal lessons from at least three different instructors. Over the last thirty years I owned at least six guitars. I still own three of them.

Guitar Boy

And yet today I am a novice guitar player. Sure, I can play the introduction to three or four songs and I can manage the chorus to another two or three. I also know a couple favorite bass lines from some classic songs that you might know. But I can’t play any of these songs well enough to consider playing for an audience.

What gives? I have the equipment; I have the ability; I have the time; and I certainly love music. So what is missing?

The key missing ingredient is that I never practiced. I’d hear a song on the radio and I would practice for a couple days until I figured out the lead part. Then I would put the guitar back in its case for a few weeks until the next song wandered into my head and I would do the same with that one. Throughout the 30 years or so that I have been “playing” the guitar, I bet that I have accumulated a total of no more than 200 hours of practice time. I have not invested into my craft to the point of becoming skilled enough to play well. This lack of practice is what separates those who are world-class from everyone else. This is what makes a difference.

What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else?

The Experts Say…

According to Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, to become a world-class performer you must commit yourself to at least ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. Ten thousand hours is quite a bit. Assuming you were practicing forty hours a week (full-time) for fifty weeks a year (take two weeks off for vacation), you would accumulate those needed ten thousand hours in five years!

The thing that separates the good from the great is practice.

Consider professional ball players. The great ones stand out in high school sports. They get into college, perhaps on an athletic scholarship, and they shine there too. Finally, those shining stars find their way to professional sports. And after a couple years they start making a big positive impact for their team. By this time they have been (practicing their trade) playing their sport for at least eight to ten years. Ten years of deliberate practice.

So, is it possible to develop world-class leaders if they don’t have the required practice? What does practice look like for a leader who wants to become world-class?

Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.

There’s a right way to do it. Colvin states that great performance comes from deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is made up of four key elements:

  1. Activity designed to improve your performance
  2. Repeatable at high volume
  3. Continuous feedback is given
  4. Practice is mentally highly demanding 

How many leaders get this kind of practice? And how many leaders get ten thousand hours of this kind of practice? When we observe the leaders around us, we notice that they are very busy writing marketing plans, tracking budgets, crunching numbers and attending meetings. They stay very busy doing the technical things that got them noticed. But how often do they spend time “leading”? What percentage of their time is spent setting expectations, developing others, providing feedback on performance, and helping others make good decisions?

Feedback in most organizations is a travesty.

And at the end of the day, who is coaching the leaders in your organization, ensuring they are practicing? Who is giving them feedback? Leaders need a mentor or coach; they need someone to provide feedback, a key element of deliberate practice.

Great leaders need to focus on understanding what they want to be – technical experts or great leaders of people. These leaders must posses the passion and transparency required to dedicate themselves to the deliberate practice of their craft. This authenticity is critical to the long-term practice needed to become world-class.

How does this impact your approach to leadership development? What evidence do you see that suggests your leaders practice their people skills? What programs do you have in place to provide deliberate practice to the future leaders in your organization?

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Daron Sandbergh is Manager, QA/RA Training at GE Healthcare
He can be reached at Daron.Sandbergh@ge.com

Image Source: talent.linkedin.com


2 responses to “Observations of Greatness: Strumming the Leadership Blues

  1. You describe, accurately, the conditions for “deliberate practice.” Then you suggest that leaders should practice leadership this way. But there’s no way to practice specific tasks that affect leadership performance in the way you describe. Leadership is not like playing the piano or playing out of the rough, it’s a complex human task, a performance art. Deliberate practice simply isn’t applicable.

    What we can take from deliberate practice for leaders to use is the idea of building the habit of getting feedback and critiquing performance. We can take the idea that a significant amount of time (10,000 hours or a decade, pick your expert source) is needed to master the basics. The rest of deliberate practice is great for some things, but not leadership.


  2. Wally,

    Thank you for your comments. I think I would have to argue, however, that leadership is not a complex human task. Leadership is several tasks grouped together under one title.

    We know that, as a leader, we should build a vision for our organization. We know that change management will be required when we make a shift in the direction of our organization. But if the leader is not deliberately ensuring that the same message is being delivered to employees, that change will be painful, and the vision may not be realized.

    When we look at “leadership” as one big complex task, we miss out on the small details that matter. Deliberate practice can be applied to these small details – these tasks that effective leaders must perform. Instead of being out on the field catching a fly ball, the leader is meeting employees, communicating the vision. Instead of trying to shave 2 seconds off their lap time, the leader is providing specific feedback to an employee about their role in a project. These are critical tasks that a leader can practice; Step 1) Plan the task, Step 2) Perform the task, and Step 3) Reflect on what worked well – and what did not.


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