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A Guide to Making Deliberate Practice a Daily Habit—from Kouzes, Posner, and Dad

Flute

Zoltán Vörös // cc by: 2.0 //

Self-Leadership for Success

My father was a successful musician in Nashville, Tennessee. For over 50 years he practiced flute, clarinet, piccolo, and saxophone almost every day for at least two hours, often longer. For as long as I can remember, Dad was either on the back porch or in his den practicing scales, arpeggios, and a number of other routines, all in preparation for a few hours recording in a Music Row studio or playing a live TV show. My sister and I joke to this day how we can remember note-for-note some of his routines. What an example of perseverance!

I think Dad is a great model for what Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner describe as “deliberate practice” in their book Learning Leadership. Deliberate practice is described as the intentional, sustained practice or rehearsal of skills in order to develop a higher level of competence and performance.

While deliberate practice for a professional musician may not seem like a very close reference point for leadership skill development, the similarities and potential lessons learned seem too interesting to pass up. So, recently I went and interviewed my father on how deliberate practice influenced his craft and ultimately his success working with some of the top arrangers, engineers, songwriters, singers, and musicians in the world.

FIVE QUESTIONS TO MAKE LEARNING LEADERSHIP A DAILY PRACTICE

I asked Dad how Kouzes and Posner’s five practices for learning leadership matched (or not) his experience of intentional and deliberate practice and skill development as a musician. In chapter 19, “Learning Leadership Must Be a Daily Habit,” the authors pose five questions (and corresponding leadership-learning focus) we might ask ourselves as we reflect at the end of each day:

1.     Did I do my best to remain positive about my abilities today? (positive mental state and self-concept)

2.     Did I do my best to focus on exciting future possibilities? (future orientation and expectation for success)

3.     Did I do my best to challenge and stretch myself today? (intrinsic motivation and interest to grow my capacities and skills)

4.     Did I do my best to learn from other people today? (willingness to seek out and actively learn from others)

5.     Did I do my best to practice a new leadership skill today? (desire to not just repeat a skill but to lean in and try a new skill or refine an existing one)

In our conversation Dad reflected on how close to his experience the five reflection questions actually are. While he may not have known it at the time, the ability to self-manage and take action every time he picked up an instrument made a big difference to his skill and career success over five decades. Here’s his four-step guide to making deliberate practice a daily habit:

  1. Have regular routines to practice so you know what you are working on improving. It is important to know what you are doing and why. Create structure, and be diligent in following it. 
  2. Be a bit OCD. That is, be compulsive about learning and getting better.
  3. Always focus on improving your game, and not the other person. The only true competition is with yourself. The objective is to be better today than you were yesterday.
  4. Find others who model and exemplify what you are wanting to be good at. In Dad’s case, he learned through a masterful sax player that practice makes all the difference between good and excellent music. Practice was my father’s “secret sauce” above and beyond even natural talent.

Successful leadership of others hinges on positive self-leadership. And self-leadership is fundamentally about developing a mindset of learning: self-awareness, self-management, and persistent, deliberate, and daily practice. No amount of training, mentoring, or coaching will suffice without individualized learning and deliberate practice. My father is a living example of the kind of success that comes from just this kind of self-leadership.


To learn more about self-coaching to learn leadership, check out a sample chapter from Learning Leadership.

Download the First Chapter of Kouzes and Posner's "Learning Leadership"

Tracy Puett

Tracy Puett is a consultant at FlashPoint. He provides expertise in the areas of curriculum design and facilitation, assessments, and coaching at all levels.

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