Deliberate Practice – Lessons for Leadership

Ever wondered what makes exceptional performers, well… exceptional? I’m in the process of reading Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and he makes some interesting connections between intelligence and talent. It turns out smarts aren’t the only predictor of high achievement, and in fact, may not be correlated at all.

Colvin goes on to say that it is the act of practicing that leads to high performance and achievement. And, this isn’t just practice for the sake of practice. It’s practice that is deliberate. But what does this mean?

As I sit back and think of all the times I thought I was practicing: scales on the piano, scrimmages in field hockey, running my Sunday long runs to prep for that marathon… all examples of low impact practicing, if we could call it practicing at all!

The concept of deliberate practice, as written by Colvin, contains these five must-have elements:

  • It’s designed specifically to improve performance, and the design is usually facilitated by a teacher, coach or mentor with a vantage point to see you more completely than you may see yourself.
  • It can be repeated… a lot. And this isn’t the mindless task of doing something over and over. It’s intentional repetition, where you are constantly present and at the edge of learning.
  • Feedback is continuously available. While self-assessment often has its place, feedback from an outsider can offer the nuggets that help to improve performance.
  • It’s highly demanding mentally. The focus and concentration of deliberate practice involves constantly seeking out areas to improve and dedicating the right amount of focus and intensity required to get better.
  • It isn’t fun. Doing things we’re good at is fun. Repeating the things we suck at isn’t. Deliberate practice is about seeking out what we’re not good at and doing them over and over. (An interesting perspective compared to Strengthsfinder).

So what does this mean for Leadership? If you’re interested in improving your performance you can start by creating your vision of excellence. This isn’t the results you want to achieve, but rather, the impact you want to have. Then look at your current reality. What are the things that you do, most likely inadvertently, that pull you off course… that inhibit excellence? Seek out feedback. Get a coach. Know that objectivity and an outside view can serve you. Then, begin to create a plan where you work on developing your whole self as a leader – reinforcing your strengths, and getting better at the things you’re not great at. And then…. Repeat!

I’d love to hear your comments on deliberate practice. What do you think leads to high performance?

If you’re interested in learning how Navigo can help increase your leadership performance, drop me an e-mail: esills (at)

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6 thoughts on “Deliberate Practice – Lessons for Leadership

  1. There’s a list of things that I need to consciously practice in order to improve and or break a non-productive habit. I think we’ve gotten away from the idea of “practice” and now we just “do”. But that leads to mediocre and/or fly by the seat of your pants results. The path to true excellence requires focused practice and tangible improvement benchmarks. I wish it was easier, but I’ve yet to find a substitute for doing the work! 🙂
    Great job Erin – looking forward to more.

  2. Nice one! I am reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. She talks about having an open mindset vs a fixed mindset. Open mindset is about (to put simply) is around effort, practice, striving for better etc. Fixed is more related to being closed off to seeing mistakes, “failures” as learning and growth opportunities. When I first started reading this book, I was certain I had an open mindset – isn’t that a good indicator that I actually have a tendency to have a more fixed mindset! Open mindset is about practice – and can be learned… YEAH!

  3. Interesting stuff around practice. I read a book a while ago called The Brain That Changes Itself (all about neuroplasticity). it talked in there that mentally visualizing the practice was almost as good as actually doing it (even for things like playing the piano). I found that quite suprizing… but really encouraging. Even taking the time to mentally visualizing yourself doing something well will increase performance!

  4. We’re far far more likely to practice with this sort of rigour when we have some appetite for the activity (read: talent). I say: apply this strategy to things that you find “fun” and you’ll improve so dramatically in them – they’ll separate you from the pack, the mediocrity, the miserable…
    Who wants to spend 10,000 hours on something that’s not fun?! Madness!!

    1. Tracy — I know! This is exactly why I found the book so interesting. We should get Colvin and Buckingham in a room together and see what great conversation emerges. This is how “Talent” is defined in the book: “When the term [talent] is used in ways that change the course of people’s lives, it has a specific meaning. It is a natural ability to do something better than most people can do it. That something is fairly specific – play golf, sell things, compose music, lead an organization. It can be spotted early, before the ability is fully expressed. And it is innate; you’re born with it, and if you’re not born with it, you can’t acquire it.”

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