It Takes Time to Make Great Leaders

A recent Fortune article on “Why Talent is Overrated” really got me going.

We live in a world of expecting quick fixes and instantaneous change. Information is available at a moment’s notice. Yet we’re trying to apply the instantaneous responses that work with our Blackberries to human behavior. This article makes the case that there is no quick fix for greatness.

Apparently, specific (targetted) natural gifts don’t exist. Tiger Woods wasn’t born to be a champion golfer and Jack Welch wasn’t born to be a CEO. But take heart. Natural talent doesn’t really matter. What does? Good old fashioned hard work (perhaps with a dose of passion tossed in).

Apparently there is something called the “Ten Year Rule” – well established by researchers as the time it takes to do the hard work to become world-class at whatever. Research has proven this in a variety of fields.

This “Ten Year Rule” is supported by research done by Benjamin Bloom (who died in 1999) at the University of Chicago. Dr.Bloom found that at least ten years of hard work (a minimum) was required for atheletes, performers, artists, biochemists and mathematicians to reach their peak.

Apparently, something called “deliberate practice” is also necessary during these ten years for the best people in any field to excel. This is a specific practice that stretches an individual beyond their level of competence, provides feedback on the experience, requires adjustment based on the feedback and is repeated until mastered. Lots of deliberate practice equals mastery.

Even if you are skeptical about the ten year rule, the necessity for deliberate practice and hard work seem to make sense. So why wouldn’t this apply to great leadership? High potentials are thrown into workshops and expected to excel to the level of great leadership. The research refutes that this will work. It’s time for us to recognize that developing leaders takes time and hard work. And lots of practice.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

4 comments on “It Takes Time to Make Great Leaders

  1. Hi Michael,

    Lots of things that aren’t quite as tangible to getting a better stroke: clarity in communication, setting a vision, influencing others, setting and achieving a strategy, patience and restraint, delegating effectively, giving and accepting feedback, testing their own (and others’) limits, creating and developing great teams – etc. With each position of leadership these challenges change and require new learning and practice.

    Thanks for asking!

  2. Mary Jo, the concept of deliberate practice makes clear sense for games, sporting activities, some formal sciences, and likely writing.

    I have read both Colvin’s and Gladwell’s books on the topic, and I remain unpersuaded by the generality of their thesis.

    For example, a leader in c-level position will very likely have had to negotiate a number of important problems. Yet, the best training we can give people involves exercises that for the most part cannot be repeated because of their reliance on confidential information.

    I agree with your list, but I don’t see how people can deliberately practice the skills you listed.

  3. Hi Michael,

    In my line of work, I observe and support leaders in “deliberate practice” of the skills in 1:1 confidential setting. As do thousands of other executive and leadership coaches. We help to stretch them in these arenas, give them “practices” to improve their skills customized to their specific needs and those of their organization, create a network for support and feedback, and see measurable results. There is a growing body of research that confirms that this “deliberate practice” is effective. We help leaders get results faster than they could on their own, and have developed a shared methodology that is subject to change, as the research changes.

    Honestly – I know I’m biased due to the work I do. However, if I believed that leaders couldn’t get better at these fundamental attributes, I’d also lose hope in leadership.

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