February 23, 2017

Does practice really make perfect? The case for deliberate practice in leader development.

An old volleyball coach used to tell me “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” While frustrating to hear during his grueling workouts, my coach was onto something backed by psychological science and leadership research. It wasn’t enough to practice our serve 100 times; if we wanted to perform at the highest levels, we had to practice our serve 100 times in a certain way. What my coach meant was that we needed deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is a broad term for all the activities we perform for the express purpose of developing our leadership. Specifically, it includes structured and repetitive activities that a) we’re motivated to perform, b) are suitable for our current level of performance (i.e., they aren’t beyond our current capabilities), and c) provide near immediate feedback letting us know how well we did. Regarding leader development, deliberate practice can occur in the context of training or, more likely, in the context of our day-to-day work experience.

On the surface, developing your leadership by learning from experience seems straightforward. Put in the work, and, over time, you’ll get better. While there is much truth to this [1], two very important caveats get in the way. First, we do not get the opportunity to perform the same leadership behavior, in the same way, more than once. Lack of exact repetition of events prevents us from seeing patterns in our performance. After all, real life is much more complicated and unpredictable than a volleyball game. Second, we almost never get immediate feedback on our performance. If and when we do get feedback, it is many months later and encompasses a year or more of our overall job performance, not just our leadership.

Due to these shortcomings, a prominent team of leadership researchers [2] proposed that to truly learn from everyday leadership experiences leaders need to engage in deliberate practice. To do so, they recommend being intentional, rather than ad hoc, about capitalizing on opportunities that arise to practice leadership skills. Even if practice situations cannot be planned perfectly in advance, you can take advantage of scenarios likely to happen by planning ahead and knowing what you’ll do if a certain situation arises. For example, Miguel has a goal to develop a more trusting relationship with his subordinates by letting them take the reigns on projects Miguel used to oversee directly. He knows that the next time a project issue comes up, he needs to stay out of the details and simply be available should they come to him for support. His deliberate practice will be to reassure his subordinates that they have the capability to handle it while reminding them that his door is always open if they need it. Resisting the urge to jump in and fix things, yet maintaining a supportive stance is not likely to happen without intentional forethought about what that will look like for Miguel.

So, what are some things you and Miguel can do to develop your leadership through deliberate practice? Have a plan. Set specific intentions for what you’ll do in situations likely to trigger the old pattern of behavior you’re trying to break. Seek out practice situations and look for similarities across them. Deliberate practice requires repetition, so even if you don’t do the same exact thing twice, find commonalities across your day-to-day experience so you can see how your behavior changes an otherwise normal situation. Finally, seek feedback. The sooner you can get feedback on how you performed, the more targeted and useful that feedback will be. Some feedback will need to come from other people (i.e., 360-degree assessments, informal conversations), but some information you can glean from the situation itself. For example, it might be readily apparent to Miguel that when he stays out of the weeds, his team is more motivated. This kind of task feedback is invaluable for improving your performance as a leader, but it requires paying attention and noticing how your behavior affects people. You’re not likely to hit the mark 100% of the time, but that is why it is called practice. So, although my volleyball coach might suggest otherwise, your leadership practice doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be deliberate.

About the Author

Dayna Walker is a Research Consultant in the LeAD Research Lab and Ph.D. student in Organizational Behavior at Claremont Graduate University. Dayna’s current research emphasizes the development of implicit leadership theories as well as leader self-development. With other members of LeAD Labs, Dayna recently published a paper on leader developmental efficacy in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. When she needs a break from research, Dayna loves to play volleyball, run, and read.

Relevant Research

[1] McCauley, C. D., Ruderman, M. N., Ohlott, P. J., & Morrow, J. E. (1994). Assessing the developmental components of managerial jobs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4), 544-560.

[2] Day, D. V., Harrison, M. M., & Halpin, S. M. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity and expertise. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.