Getting Real about Deliberate Practice and Leadership Development

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Deliberate practice is the current magic stone of training and development. Articles, blog posts, books, and pundits have anointed the technique as the key to successful development. But there are problems with that assessment.

Not everything that’s deliberate is deliberate practice. In his book, Talent is Overrated, Goeff Colvin uses Jerry Rice as an example of someone who improved through deliberate practice. But most of what’s described is hard work on conditioning. That’s laudable and effective but it’s not deliberate practice.

Several commentators have latched onto Sully Sullenberger’s career as an example of deliberate practice. Sullenberger was certainly deliberate in developing his skills and pursuing his interests. But most of what he did though both laudable and deliberate was not deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice has three parts. You need a specific task that you want to do better. You need a way to measure your performance on the task so that you get immediate feedback. And you need multiple trials so that you can use the feedback to improve performance.

There’s no magic to this. It’s concentrated hard work on improving performance, usually in areas of weakness.

Deliberate practice is an excellent tool to use if you want achieve excellence in a specific area. It’s hard work. It requires discipline.

But deliberate practice should be only one tool in your development toolkit. The trick is understanding when to use it.

The research than underlies deliberate practice is now almost twenty years old. But it only gives us insight into a narrow range of domains. Specifically, researchers have studied music, sports, chess, exceptional memory, professional writing, and mathematical calculation.

All of those domains include specific skills that can be practiced and improved. Feedback, for the most part, is unambiguous. Practice can be surgically separated from performance.

But none of the research addresses complex human interactions in a dynamic environment. That’s what leadership is.

Matters are not helped by Anders Ericsson’s assertion in his Harvard Business Review article that: “deliberate practice can be adapted to developing leadership expertise. The classic example is the case method, taught by many business schools, which presents students with real-life situations that require action.”

He’s right, but only in part. That can be dangerous.

You can learn from case study. But what you learn is to analyze a situation and decide on a course of action based on what’s there. That’s only part of the game, and for most leaders, it’s the easy part. There are significant ways in which case study differs from real life.

In a case study, you don’t have to dig up any outside information. There are no surprises, good or bad. No one says, “I was talking to my neighbor playing golf on Saturday. His company uses a supplier in Malaysia that might be able to do what we want.”

In a case study, you don’t have to convince people up the chain to fit your new ideas into the budget. You don’t have go to the board for approval. Remember Carly Fiorina and HP? Most observers would say that she got the strategy part right. But she had problems with the board.

In a case study, you don’t have to implement the decision. You decide and it’s done. At Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had the decision part right. He got in trouble on implementation.

Lee’s analysis was that the Confederates needed to take command of the heights south of Gettysburg. He directed his II Corp commander, Richard Ewell to take those heights “if practicable.”

Stonewall Jackson would have interpreted that order as “take the heights if there’s any possible way.” But Ewell, commanding II Corps since Jackson’s death two months before, was a more cautious commander. He interpreted Lee’s order as “take the heights if you’re sure you can do so.” In the real world, you can’t divorce analysis from implementation or from the personalities involved.

In a case study, there’s no feedback. And, feedback is a key component of deliberate practice and development. But in real life you decide and implement and then you adjust.

Deliberate practices is not magic. It is a proven tool for skill development in specific areas. But you want to develop as a leader, there are many other things you should be doing as well.

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