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The world is full of mediocre leaders, and I am one of them.

But I don’t want to be mediocre, and I don’t believe I’m condemned to a life sentence of mediocrity. Most of all, if I have any compassion on those I lead, on those subjected to my middling skills – I have to get better.

In my first article, I concluded that my leadership ability will benefit from a whole lot of practice. The below is the first in a three-part follow-up.

Practicing While Performing is Really Stupid

As a people leader, I’m not sure I have ever been asked or expected to go off-line and out-of-sight to work on my leadership skills. Sure, I’ve been “trained” in the art of people leadership/management via various courses, books, podcasts, blogs, mentors and the like. But the action plan always appears to parallel the classic Nike slogan: just do it.

Interestingly enough, we accept that many pursuits require significant time investment of off-line practice and closely monitored exercises prior to independent performance. This list includes: surgeons, pilots, hostage negotiators, public speakers, race car drivers, actors, athletes, artists, engineers, musicians, teachers – and the list goes on.

Consider just one example from this list. A public speaker that presents a TED Talk may have a preparation-to-performance ratio of 50:1 or more. That is, for a 10-minute talk, the speaker prepared with 8 hours of speech writing, memorizing, rehearsing and visualizing. In preparing for her TED Talk – a 20-minute Talk that has received over 21 million views – Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor rehearsed her speech over 200 times. Doing the math, she spent at least 67 hours rehearsing a 20-minute talk – on top of the time she spent writing and memorizing.

Why is it that people leadership is treated differently than other pursuits? Is it because the bar for leadership is so low? After all, the position of formal people leadership in the workplace is so common that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is 1 people manager for every 4.7 employees. And even more common is the informal leadership that nearly all of us assume throughout or lives – either in our homes, in our extracurricular pursuits, or with our friends. 

In the corporate realm of formal people leadership, it is my experience that systems and processes provide so much support that most leaders need call on their leadership skills only infrequently. That is, we are actually prevented from truly leading by systems that assume our leadership skills are insufficient. And since we as leaders apparently only practice our leadership skills on those we lead, why should we create a world that expects otherwise?

In my next article, I will talk about how we ensure that our practice is effective. In the meantime, drop a comment below and let me know what you think!

At Levelling Up, we provide smart applications that leaders use to practice and improve their soft skills. Join the Movement to ensure you are leading at your best.


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Mike Deboer the founder and CEO of LevellingUp.

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