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Practicing the Understanding of Leadership

Man playing a guitar
1024 680 Questiam

I was reading a book on coaching and leadership the other day. (I do that sort of thing.) The introduction had a quote by Marshall Goldsmith, a popular executive coach. the quote was this:

Leadership is not about understanding the practice, Leadership is about practicing the understanding.

~Marshall Goldsmith

leadership is like practicing the guitar. You have to do it.

Like playing the guitar, leadership requires practicing new skills.

The idea found itself immediately applicable in some organizational leadership work I was doing. Fitting in perfectly with a group that was learning about the power of a well expressed vision. The concept resonated, our examples resonated, the examples people came up with in our workshop all resonated, the shift in energy and ideas in the group was palpable. Everyone got super excited! Ideas started popping! Yup. The power of vision. Our struggle (you’ll recognize this one) was in getting the leaders in our workshop to simply begin telling the story associated with their vision out loud, after the workshop. You know, like, to people?

This is the hardest thing about supposed learning. And the simplest. Getting the understanding out of your head and into the world. Makin’ it Real. We call it, ahem, “Learning Transfer”. What it requires is expanding your comfort zone. (People like to say ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ but I I’m like, “What? No way! How comfortable is that? I love me some comfort!” Because I, not so surprisingly, am just like you.) Expanding your comfort zone is about selecting something that you’re not yet good at, something it’s uncomfortable to do, something outside your comfort zone, and targeting it for practice. daily, hourly, moment by moment if you can. Now I can hear you thinking, “Ugh, Why?!? Why would you DO that?! And I’m all busy ‘n stuff. And besides… blah, blah, blah. ”

Here’s why: Because, when you do target practice, you realize, inevitably, that you get better at that thing. It gets easier, more (wait for it) COMFORTABLE. Now, what has happened? The thing hasn’t changed. It’s requires exactly the same stuff of you as it did before, but YOU have expanded. Your repertoire of what is possible has increased. Your fear and discomfort about the thing has diminished or evaporated.  You’re bigger, better, greater, more capable. You. Super You. You Two point Oh. Fewer limitations. More choice. More freedom. Greater capacity to Lead. Ta Da! Do this often enough and fear and discomfort in general becomes a much smaller deal.  Because the only reason you think its scary or uncomfortable is because you’re not quite big enough yet.

Reminder When you were two this whole process was more fun than ice cream. Remember?

But here’s the thing. Leadership is all about the practice. You can head-know it all day long, but until you put it in action its just another idea, endlessly fascinating, sure, but pretty darn ephemeral.

Leadership is not about understanding the practice, it’s about practicing the understanding. Thanks Marshal. Succinct and pithy. Just how I like it. Of course if this idea makes you feel uncomfortable then you can always choose the other path. The one outlined below by Neil Gamain as he advises a new writer about how to get thoughts down on paper. His advice, also succinct, was, essentially,  “Just do it.” But just in case his protege didn’t like that advice he hedges with this:

I’m just kidding. There are much easier ways of doing it. For example: On the top of a distant mountain there grows a tree with silver leaves. Once every year, at dawn on April 30th, this tree blossoms, with five flowers, and over the next hour each blossom becomes a berry, first a green berry, then black, then golden.

At the moment the five berries become golden, five white crows, who have been waiting on the mountain, and which you will have mistaken for snow, will swoop down on the tree, greedily stripping it of all its berries, and will fly off, laughing.

You must catch, with your bare hands, the smallest of the crows, and you must force it to give up the berry (the crows do not swallow the berries. They carry them far across the ocean, to an enchanter’s garden, to drop, one by one, into the mouth of his daughter, who will wake from her enchanted sleep only when a thousand such berries have been fed to her). When you have obtained the golden berry, you must place it under your tongue, and return directly to your home.

For the next week, you must speak to no-one, not even your loved ones or a highway patrol officer stopping you for speeding. Say nothing. Do not sleep. Let the berry sit beneath your tongue.

At midnight on the seventh day you must go to the highest place in your town (it is common to climb on roofs for this step) and, with the berry safely beneath your tongue, recite the whole of Fox in Socks. Do not let the berry slip from your tongue. Do not miss out any of the poem, or skip any of the bits of the Muddle Puddle Tweetle Poodle Beetle Noodle Bottle Paddle Battle.

Then, and only then, can you swallow the berry. You must return home as quickly as you can, for you have only half an hour at most before you fall into a deep sleep.

When you wake in the morning, you will be able to get your thoughts and ideas down onto the paper, and you will be a writer.”

~ Neil Gamain