Tuesday, December 19, 2006

She's So Bad

I understood instantly what my daughter meant. The person to whom she was referring was really good at her chosen vocation. It’s a comment not lightly given. We admire it when we see it. Such talent! Conventional wisdom though stops us from seeing virtuosity as a possibility for many. After all, isn’t being outstanding at something usually the result of a natural gift? Current evidence points to a rosier possibility. There is a growing consensus among cognitive psychologists that “bad” is not confined to the few.

Here’s the rub: there’s no free lunch. High level performance in a particular field (or domain) requires a lot of hard work—endless hours of practice and experience. It takes at least ten years on average of daily, focused practice to attain a certain level of mastery.

It’s not just rote practice, however, that distinguishes the good from the great. It’s deliberate practice---gradual improvement of performance during extended experience. It is attained by setting explicit goals (performance outcomes) just beyond one’s level of competence, practicing the new, desired level over and over again (learning strategies), getting feedback on the results (from self and others), adjusting the learning plan and repeating the cycle again.

Ultimately, the journey to becoming a master and retaining mastery lies in deep learning. Reliable concepts and solution procedures for a wide range of situations are literally quickly at the finger tips of the masters. We’ve seen this with Tiger Woods who is adept at recovering from any and all dilemmas on the golf course. Despite his stellar and astonishing performance, commentators often mention that he’s never satisfied, always wanting to get better. Tiger’s a consummate learner self-propelled and surrounded by coaches who are themselves masters—both of these conditions are essential as it is difficult to see oneself clearly.

You might be thinking that this is fine and dandy but it does not apply to leadership. Or, put another way: how can this be relevant to such a diverse field as leadership? True, there’s a vast amount of knowledge and skills to tackle. At the same time, we are each a human laboratory in which we’re doing very well in some areas and not so well in others. That narrows the skill areas on which to apply hard work.

To get better, the first step is to identify which of the many leadership or management skills need our attention. The choice is based on feedback from others, our own self-knowledge from what works/doesn’t work in daily practice and information about best practices. The next step is to go into overdrive on deliberately practicing selected skills---performance goals and learning strategies that stretch us a little, repetitive practice and so on.

In your role as a leader-manager, you can encourage this same notion of deliberate practice to those whom your coach and mentor. It’s a more sophisticated twist on “performance management”. The idea is applicable to both hard and soft areas of practice provided a process is in place for frequent follow up---annual or twice a year sessions just won’t cut it.

Why is mastery worth pursuing in leadership? We know when leadership is lacking and it’s often not pretty. It’s costly and wasteful when leadership has failed or is muddling along. As we are confronted with more complexity, uncertainty, instability and conflicts in values, the pursuit of superior achievement in leadership looks better than the options. If high performance is truly available to the many, it makes sense to head in that direction. The result could astound us.

Hope is like a road in the country.
There wasn’t ever a road.
But when many people walk on it,
the road comes into existence.

--Lin Yutang

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