Learning to Lead is not Like Learning to Play the Piano

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Learning to lead is hard work. You’ll be learning to lead for your entire career. The big question is, how will you learn to lead well? That’s a challenge, because you don’t learn leadership the way you learn many other things in life.

Learning Leadership Is Not Like Learning History

History is a fascinating subject. You can read books about history, take history courses, and participate in reenactments. But learning history is all head learning. Leadership is not like that. Leadership is a doing discipline. Learning about leadership is not learning to lead.

If you want to learn leadership, knowing is not enough. As my friend, Rod Santomassimo, tells his clients, “Don’t KID yourself. Knowing isn’t doing.”

Learning Leadership Is Not Like Learning to Play the Piano

Maybe you think learning leadership is like learning to play the piano. After all, you can’t learn to play the piano by reading about it, you must do it. But there are significant differences between learning to play the piano and learning to lead.

If you want to learn to play the piano, you can engage in what Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” That’s great, but deliberate practice only applies in specific domains.

Deliberate practice works when you have agreement on important definitions. There must be proven methods of skill development. And there must be coaches who understand the principles and can help pupils develop their skills.

None of that is true with leadership. There is no common definition of leadership. There is no agreed-upon course of study or development. And, since there is no agreed-upon course of development, there can’t be a battalion of coaches trained in it.

It’s Up to You

That means you must figure things out for yourself. Your challenge is to identify the things that work for you and make the most of them. Here are half a dozen things to think about as you pursue leadership development.


Plan to concentrate on a specific thing for a specific period. 90 days seems like it works for most people. Set a goal for what you’ll achieve in 90 days. At the end of 90 days, review your progress. Then, decide what you’ll do for the next 90 days.

Formal Learning

Formal learning is learning from courses, webinars, and such. Most of those courses will not be helpful. Courses are often too long and try to pack too much material into the time available. Courses give short shrift to the emotional component of leadership. That’s another case where knowing isn’t doing.

You’ll get the most from formal learning if you go into it with a specific objective about what you want to learn. Then, when the formal program is over, select one thing you want to apply immediately. Make that a development objective for your next 90 days. Consider enlisting the help of an accountability partner.


Reading can’t teach you leadership, there’s no doing involved. But reading is essential because it can help you develop mental models of good leadership. Reading can also help you decide on things you want to learn in your 90-day learning sprints.

Developmental Assignments and Accidental Learning

Developmental assignments are formal arrangements where you take on a leadership challenge that stretches you. Accidental learning comes from situations that you didn’t plan but which stretch you and help you develop new skills.

Here’s an important thing to remember. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning.

Coaches and Mentors

Coaches and mentors are people who help guide your learning and development. The primary difference between them is that coaches are paid by someone. That someone might be your company, or it might be you.

When I was coming up, having a coach was a sign of weakness. Today, thankfully, having a coach is seen as evidence of savvy development.

You’re not restricted to one coach. Pick specific coaches to help you with specific areas of development.

Embed Learning in Your Day

Many things have changed over the past couple of thousand years, but not this advice. At the beginning of your day, decide what you want to accomplish. At the end of the day, capture your insights and reflect on how you did. You’ll find that advice in one form or another from Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics to Benjamin Franklin to Jack Canfield.

Consider a short period of reflection at the beginning of the day when you set your objectives for the day. During the day, capture any interesting or obvious learning things. You don’t have to do a lot, just take some short notes to be a reminder. At the end of the day, use your notes and a journal to gather in your observations and decide how you’ll do better.

Bottom Line

Leadership is a doing discipline and so is leadership learning. Plan and work in 90-day learning sprints. Use formal courses as well as reading to get ideas on what you can do differently. Take developmental assignments and take advantage of accidental learning to stretch yourself. Use coaches and mentors for guidance and wisdom. Embed learning in your day.


Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader by Robert J. Thomas

Now You’re the Boss: Making the Most of the Most Important Transition in Business

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