Deliberate Practice and Great Leaders

So, I have a new role from September at a lovely new school. In the interview, I was asked lots of questions that began: ‘As a leader, how do you see…?’

This was unusual to me. At my current school, the focus (possibly rightly, possibly wrongly) has been on procedures, structures and routines to ensure consistency across all staff and creating effective accountability models. I have had a small leadership role at this school for five or six years, a basic TLR, but I have never seen myself as a leader. 

Nor, I think, has anyone explained explicitly what a ‘leader’ is or does in the current structure. 

I think, on reflection, that the belief at my current school is that leaders are born, not made – the notional ‘natural leader’. So, if your practice matches the goals of the school, you are fast-fracked for leadership. Of course, the downside is that, if your skills aren’t immediately apparent, you aren’t.

So, if we start with Ericsson’s belief that almost all skills can be learned through ‘deliberate practice’, does this hold true of leadership? Well, I can think of no scenario where this might not hold true. For example, in terms of the everyday running of a school – budgets, say, it’s obvious that can be learned. But what about the more amorphous aspects: social understanding? Empathy? The ability to keep an open-mind? The skill of managing difficult employees? Well, why not? 

However, as with the classroom, if we learn through deliberate practice, the programme of ‘practice’ for the wannabe leader would need to be similarly structured or planned. The role of a mentor or coach in helping a developing leader achieve the vision they are striving for cannot be over-estimated. And that is where the system fails or succeeds. When, as the leader of leaders, do you allow an aspiring leader to take on responsibility and, God forbid, fail abysmally – knowing that they will learn more from that experience than having a total safety-blanket throughout? In a high-stakes environment, nobody can afford failure, so no risks are taken.

High-quality leaders strive to develop independence in their team. Ideally, the situation is created in the structures and expertise of the organisation to recognise that everyone, should they be motivated to do so (motivation being such an important part of deliberate practice) can become a leader. It is also vital that the structures and expertise of the institution provide the controlled practice to develop the skills to become that leader: this is not ‘sink-or-swim’ but – how can we provide opportunities for that colleague to – metaphorically – swim?

We’ve all worked for leaders who are ‘learning the ropes’ – feeling their way as they go. It can be a brilliant time – where they learn to build a team, utilising the expertise available, allowing everyone to fulfil their potential at that point. It can, of course, also be the reverse, where the task is so far beyond the current capabilities of the individual that everyone involved feels the uncertainty, the lack of trust and the fear. Goodness knows, I’ve made some terrible mistakes in my time – even in the small role I’ve had. 

This is not the fault of the leader, but of the development programme within the institution – deliberate practice suggests that anyone can pretty much do anything. 

So, September, new job and new role. I will be taking more risks in my leadership; I will endeavour to trust further those that I have the fortune to work with but, most importantly, I will be working to free the leadership potential in those that wish to.

 That, in answer to the question, is how I see anything linked to leadership.


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