When you start your leadership journey, it can be a bit overwhelming.
You want to go big — not just big goals, but ground shaking, Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).
You don’t want to just meet your budget, you want to blow those numbers away.
But what about the skills you need to deliver those results? To meet those BHAGs?
Your former bosses are likely a mixed bag of good practices that you try to emulate, and those awful practices that you swore you’d never repeat when you be became a leader.
But now you’re in a leadership role, and people are looking at you.
Expecting you to lead.
Some may sincerely want you to succeed. Some may be waiting to see if you fail.
The pressure’s on.
There is a great lesson for leaders in the example of Tiger Woods. At age 19. Before he turned pro.
He had the drive to be successful. So do a lot of people. Athletes. Entrepreneurs. People in all walks of life.
But he had an approach to learning the skills he needed to become a champion.
It involved consistent effort. Deliberate practice. Laser focus.
On one skill.
It is the same approach that you can use to become an exceptional leader.
By focusing on one skill at a time.
“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.” — Tony Robbins
Avoid Overwhelm and Start Small
When you look up necessary leadership skills, you’ll see items like communication, delegation, active listening, running effective meetings, giving feedback.
And dozens of other skills.
The articles will tell you.
25 Leadership Skills You Need to Learn Fast
35 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Skills at Work
10 Types of Leadership Skills You Need to Have
If you want to grow as a leader, you can’t focus on a lengthy list.
If you try to master all of them at once, you may get marginally better at a couple of things.
Or more likely you’ll waste time.
And get so frustrated your head may explode. 🤯
Concentrate on one skill.
Make it a small one.
If you’re trying to mentor or develop a future leader, the principle applies.
Start small. One skill.
Lessons From Teenage Tiger
I watched a video last week where Laszlo Bock tells the story of a student at Stanford University back in the 90s, who was on his way to a fraternity party at 11:00 o’clock at night. It is dark, it is raining, and when he passes the driving range, there is a lone figure out there hitting balls. Later, when he was leaving the party at 3:00 a.m., the same figure is out there pounding balls in the rain. It was Tiger Woods. The student asked Tiger what he was doing. Tiger responded that it rarely rains in Northern California, and this was his only chance to practice in the rain.
Rick Reilly wrote an article in Sports Illustrated about that time (1995), that described finding Tiger Woods out on the golf course during one of the worst rainstorms to hit the Bay area in a decade. There were floods, mudslides, and even a few deaths as a result of the torrential rains. Tiger’s parents couldn’t reach him when they called to check on his safety. Reilly found him on the 10th hole of the closed Stanford golf course, hitting ball after ball into the teeth of the driving rain.
He was practicing. Taking advantage of the weather to work on his “rain game.”
He might need it in the British Open. One day.
That mindset drove Tiger to eight wins in thirteen matches in 1996 at Stanford and three more on the PGA Tour after he turned pro. In 1997 he won The Masters, his first major championship, and began a remarkable run of victories on the PGA Tour for the next decade.
Working on one skill at a time. Deliberate practice. When he could. Where he could. Even when no one was watching.
Start With Intention and Learn As You Go
Some leadership skills are important, but also multi-faceted. Communication? Managing People? Yes, those are necessary. But don’t start there. Start smaller. Simpler.
Once you master a skill, it gives you a stronger foundation on which to add the next skill.
As you add layers of skills, with increased confidence, your effectiveness gets magnified.
Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success. — Scott Adams
Chris Bailey, the productivity guru and author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, is a strong proponent of single-tasking. He suggests that you don’t have to spread your time, energy, and attention on too many things at once. You make more progress and you learn the skill more deeply and effectively.
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, found that people who tried to accomplish multiple goals were less committed and less likely to succeed than those who focused on a single goal.
He believes that if you want to be successful, you also have to create an “implementation intention.” This intention involved clearly identifying when (day and time), where (location), and how you are going to implement it (your methodology). Clear suggests that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick to your habits, and therefore to learn the behaviors if you make a specific plan to implement them.
What About the 10,000 Hours to Become an Expert?
Dr. Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice was referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. You’ve probably heard references to the claim that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Based on 20 hours a week, it requires almost ten years to become an expert. 😱
But you need to get better at your leadership skills by next quarter. Next month. Tomorrow.
The concept of deliberate practice isn’t just about repetition. It is about learning as you go. I believe that’s where Gladwell and Dr. Ericsson are being misquoted and their work misapplied.
Aubrey Daniels is an author and consultant on the subject of human behavior and optimized performance. He wrote a blog post on deliberate practice that underscored the learning process, rather than must mere repetition:
“Consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”
I hope you said Player A.
The good news?
You don’t have to spend the next ten years before you can get noticeably better at important leadership skills.
A Process and Feedback for Each Skill
You do need a process to follow. If you need a place to start, I’ve written two blog posts that outline processes for meetings and delegation.
How To Lead Meetings That Won’t Waste Time and Actually Drive Results: 14 best practices for running great meetings.
9 Steps To Master Delegation as a Leader: Turn delegation from a necessary evil to a massive difference-maker.
But you also need feedback.
It will help identify your gaps. What you missed. What you need to tweak.
How you can improve.
Feedback From Your Team
If you want quality feedback from your team, make it simple. Ridiculously simple.
Using the blog post on meetings (see link above) for your process, I recommend getting feedback from participants using the Plus / Delta exercise.
At the end of each meeting, make one statement and ask two simple questions:
Statement: I want each meeting to get better than the last one and to do that I really need your honest feedback.
Question 1. What went well in this meeting that we should continue doing in the future?
Question 2. What is one thing you would change in the future to make our meetings more effective?
Then shut up and take notes. You aren’t trying to defend anything or explain anything. Ask clarifying questions if you need to. Look interested. They will read your face and body language. Thank them for their input.
One statement to reinforce that you want their responses. Then two simple questions to elicit quick feedback. Valuable feedback.
Do Your Own Assessment
You need to objectively assess the meeting. You don’t want to get slightly better. You want to be great at running meetings. You’re preparing for the British Open. In the rain. In California.
Create a checklist from the process you follow.
Based on my blog post about leading meetings, a checklist might look something like this:
Meeting Leader Evaluation
To be completed by the leader following each meeting during the evaluation period. Answer with a simple yes or no and any appropriate (brief!) notes.
- Did I communicate the meeting ground rules?
- Did everyone in attendance understand the purpose of the meeting?
- Did the meeting have a written agenda?
- Were the right people in the meeting?
- Did attendees come prepared?
- Did we start and end on time?
- Was there healthy conflict or respectful disagreement?
- Did we use a parking lot?
- Was there a mix of verbal, written, and technical presentation of information?
- Was any element of the meeting novel or “different” — or would participants consider it the same old “different day / same meeting”?
- Did you conclude by summarizing the action items by person and date?
- Do you have a copy of the action items and due dates?
- Were post-meeting communication requirements identified and assigned to an owner?
You can use the team feedback and the self-assessment to determine the improvements you can make. Be specific. Document them. Incorporate those recommendations into your next meeting.
Continuous Improvement, One Skill at a Time
Effective leadership requires mastering a variety of skills.
No matter how long you’ve been in a leadership role, we’re all works in progress.
You’re a work in progress.
There is room for improvement.
Take a skill-building lesson from Teenage Tiger Woods. While he was building the skills that would give him a decade of dominance on the PGA Tour.
- Identify one skill
- Follow a process to learn and implement that skill (like the delegation and leading meeting examples above)
- Get team feedback
- Do a self-assessment based on your personal checklist
- Incorporate the team and personal feedback and modify your approach
- Rinse and repeat
Your skills will get enhanced one event at a time. Through feedback. Through reflection. And repetition. Lots of repetition.
Better today than yesterday. Even better tomorrow.
Small daily improvements over time lead to stunning results. — Robin Sharma