Early in my career, I was a percussion instructor—in other words, I taught high school kids how to play drums. I am not a natural musician; all you need to do is watch me dance for five seconds to realize I have no natural rhythm (and pretty much no body movement from the shoulders down). Any musical ability I had, I earned through grit, hard work, and blind persistence. In watching my students over the years, I came to realize that some people are born with an innate talent for music, and others have to earn it through sweat and sometimes tears. Someone who worked hard could become a good musician, better than those who had talent but no drive. The best were those with talent who also put in the time and effort.
My experience teaching high schoolers (a dubious proposition at the best of times; hug the next teacher you meet) lines up with what psychologist Anders Ericsson describes as “deliberate practice” to “achieve maximal performance.” According to Ericsson, we over emphasize talent, and ignore the fact that most people who are the best in their field have actually invested thousands of hours in their craft. The best musicians, athletes, and artists invest in their craft over a number of years, constantly pushing themselves to get better, to make small improvements time and time and time again—they deliberately practice. They also have teachers or coaches who know how to teach, who help them develop their ‘A’ game, and who give them feedback on their performance to help them excel.
The founder of InnerWill, Charlie Luck, raced cars in his youth, and has picked up the sport again. In his current league, every turn, every straight, every movement he makes as a driver is measured and is fed back to him as data he can use to improve (it is feed-back, after all). He has a coach who is pushing him to develop to the peak of his abilities, to reach his potential as a driver. In every race, he pushes himself to improve his speed, to improve his skills, to get better.
We can use these same techniques to improve our leadership game. Rather than be limited by the fact that we may have little talent for leading others, we can build on what skill we do have, and with enough hard work, grit, and coaching, we can reach our potential as leaders… we can be great.
How can we become great leaders? Use the same approach as drummers and race car drivers.
- Find a teacher, coach, or mentor who knows how to teach and knows how to lead.
- Put in the work. Push ourselves to get a little bit better at leading, every day, in all aspects of our lives.
- Get feedback from our coach and from others. Use that data to improve and to make small adjustments that help us lead better.
Over time, as we improve, we will need to keep pushing, keep finding situations that challenge us, and perhaps find new mentors and new coaches who will help us continue to raise our game.