Leadership and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Jeff Hough on Feb 21, 2013 8:00:00 AM

Violinist in Water WEBIn the early 1990’s Anders Ericsson, a Psychology professor at Florida State University, studied violinists at the Berlin Music Academy to determine what separated great performers from the rest. What he discovered has become known as the 10,000 hour rule, and was popularized in “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell.

Ericsson’s rule states that in order to master a task, one must spend 10,000 hours of deliberate practice designed to optimize improvement. In examining Ericsson's findings, I began to wonder if they could be applied to the business world, and more specifically leadership.

Typically, businesses will promote the best sales person or best workers to management positions, and expect them to somehow magically transfer the things that made them great to those who are now their underlings. What folly! Not only does the business suffer from the loss a great performer, but now you have taken people out of their elements and thrown them into unwilling (and often unwanted) territory.

So where does someone in this situation get 10,000 hours to master a new task? If one worked on nothing but leadership skills for 8 hours a day, five days a week, it would take roughly five years to master the art of leadership. Assuming that one could only work on it for four hours a day stretches the mastery period out to 9.6 years. How many businesses are willing to wait five to ten years for their people to master the art of leadership? Not many.

Here are five ways to rack up leadership hours before being “called up to the big leagues” where the stakes are high.

1. Volunteer. Take something that you are passionate about and get involved in a group or organization dedicated to your passion. Reaching 10,000 hours of leadership practice requires a huge time commitment, so enjoying what you are doing will help you stay focused and willing to put in the time. Taking the opportunity to assume leadership positions in a low stakes environment allows experimentation in your style and philosophy.

2. Keep a Leadership Journal. Write down the events that transpire while you work on your craft. Being able to review what worked or didn’t work from the perspective of time is a valuable tool. Regularly reviewing your journal entries will shape your philosophy and style and help you avoid repeating past mistakes.

3. Read. There are literally thousands of leadership books available that cover everything from leadership philosophy to leadership style to leadership traits. You already have an idea of what type of leadership style and behavior you like, so begin your research in the areas you would like to help refine your thoughts. Then read books and articles on leaders that espouse the leadership styles and traits most suited to your skill sets.

4. Read Case Studies. Case studies give you the opportunity to examine your leadership skills and abilities in a real world setting with known outcomes. By working your way through case studies, you get to exercise your decision making muscles and analyze the results. Then take a step back and try to look at each situation from a different angle. This is where deliberate practice comes in. Find an area that you are struggling with – say holding difficult conversations – then review case studies where those situations occurred and practice your response to the situation.

5. Don’t Fear Mistakes. Great leaders aren’t afraid to make decisions and neither should you be. Recognize up front that you will never be able to make everyone happy, so worrying over everyone’s opinion is not a productive exercise. Practice gathering the necessary information to make an informed decision, and then make a decision. If the decision works out, celebrate and write it in your leadership journal. If the decision is wrong, admit it quickly, gather updated information and make another decision. There is nothing wrong with admitting a mistake, the mistake comes in trying to cover-up or ignore the problem.

Leaders aren’t born; they are made. It is possible for you to get the necessary “time in the saddle” to become a master leader before you are called up to the “big show”. The 10,000 hour rule isn’t a myth, it is a reality. It is what separates great leaders from the posers. It’s never too late to begin working on your 10,000 hours; all it takes is a little time.



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