Leadership Quality Wins: Moving Beyond 10,000 Hours

What wins the race? It is the leadership quality and finesse of multiple factors that wins, not the novice conceit of speed, or the number of hours of practice. From the book, “Inner Speed Secrets: Mental Strategies to Maximize Your Racing Performance,” by Ronn Langford and Ross Bentley share insights into the nuances that also apply to leadership.

“Many people, practically all wannabes..feel that the faster they move the controls, the faster they will go. As anyone who has become successful at driving are cars will tell you, they are absolutely wrong. The more precisely and gently you manipulate the controls, the faster you will be…  Think finesse.”

Recent research shows the 10,000 hours of practice concept is NOT the biggest predictor of success as may have been assumed. In leadership, the rules of the game are constantly changing.  Consider the saying “slow is smooth” which originates from the military. It is rooted in honing skills and establishing life-saving behavior, which often rings true for any leader building skills while also experiencing turbulence. It is also essential for those who oversee life-or-death scenarios. This post also continues the DPPE series, Data, Purpose, Plan and Evaluate, focusing on the third element, planning, especially leadership planning and implementation.

1) Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
Choosing the right pace or timing for developing and creating goals, projects, and announcements is a vital element of successful planning. Navy Seal and writer Mark Divine shared that some things cannot be rushed based on his attempts to speed his skill development by intensifying his training, meditation and reading strategies. He found this only led to frustration and burnout. From this he encourages us to take the “slow is smooth” approach, particularly when it comes to smart process steps, updated methods, skill building, and muscle memory and behavior change. “It turns out you can’t force your own development; you can only facilitate it.”

He suggests “when we slow things down and seek perfect effort, our body and mind absorb the concepts and techniques more completely. This ensures they are available for us in “smooth is fast” form when we need to act.”

Lewis Hamilton, another four-time Formula One World Champion pictured in the McLaren Mercedes in the banner above, began racing (karting) at the age of eight. At the age of ten, he approached a McLaren F1 team boss Ron Dennis for an autograph, and told him, “Hi. I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars.” Dennis wrote in his autograph book, “Phone me in nine years, we’ll sort something out then.” The young driver had years and time to build his skills, yet even more importantly, he had a vision, goal, and a driving future focus that helped Hamilton become the youngest ever drivers to secure a contract which later resulted in an Formula One drive. The rest is history.

2) Pause, reflect, choose to find strategy amidst chaos.
I learned about “slow is fast” personally while applying new team coaching skills working with horses. Several 1200 pound animals who have an affinity for “people work” became my new coaching partners. The slow-is-smooth concept allowed me to adapt to the complex nature of learning something new, communicating and leading these sensitive, large, strong animals while following strict safety standards. This increased my ability to coach leadership teams, including working with the emotions of smart leaders who may find themselves resisting jumping into a new learning curve as the horse delivers unfiltered feedback to them, it can also mean becoming a novice or less skilled at something for a time. This includes senior leadership teams, especially those that lose or gain team members and need to adapt to absorb the change.

Deb with the horse Mandala, building a relationship

The concept “pause, reflect, choose,” is also something I learned in the early stages of connecting with my horse co-coach, and through coaching the leader teams. A well-timed momentary pause can create a strategic space to craft questions and develop an approach to help leaders in their own “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” choices, so that they and team members could achieve their leadership learning goals. Many times the turn-around accomplishments by team members, including those who had a high fear of horses, was remarkable.

3) What’s Important Now? Avoiding the Rigidity Trap

I’ve seen leaders avoid traps, like the rigidity trap by testing out their project models, timelines and announcements through answering strategic questions, such as “What’s Important Now?” Simple, yet elegant tools like the 4-quadrant Eisenhower priority grid help establish this type of strategic leadership thinking. 

Eco-cyle model from Liberating Structures
Ecocycle from Liberating Structures

The Rigidity Trap is an element of a model called the Eco-cycle framework, from the Liberating Structures toolbox. It is one of the better 21st century tools that helps overcome the problems of rigidity in strategic planning.

Eco-cycle pairs the “Rigidity Trap” with the “Poverty Trap” as pictured.  Eco-cycle has strategic questions built into its frameworks. Choosing “right action” is another method, by asking the questions embedded in the concepts of “doing the right thing, at the right time, with the right people, for the right reasons, in the right way, in the right place.

4) Seize the Day, Beyond 10,000 Hours of Practice

Leaders who accurately sense how to seize the moment and capitalize on what is most important now, also reveal the limitations of the practice, practice, practice view of excellence.  The book, “Outliers” suggests 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become world class in any field. However, there is ongoing complexity in learning, much we still do not fully understand. A 2014 Princeton study suggests that practice is not the key element to develop “smoothness” and success.  From 88 studies of deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains with surprising differences:

  • In games, practice made for a 26% difference
  • In music, it was a 21% difference
  • In sports, an 18% difference
  • In education, a 4% difference
  • In professions, just a 1% difference

Frans Johansson explains this low figure in “The Click Moment” by writing that, “deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures, like tennis, chess, and classical music.” He explains that stable fields have stable rules making them accessible to study and practice to become the best. In less stable fields, like entrepreneurship and rock music, the rules change often. Richard Branson, for example, started Virgin Records and quickly branched out into Virgin Group, now with 400 companies, including space travel. The Sex Pistols took the world by storm even though Sid Vicious could barely play his bass in the band. Branson and the Sex Pistols knew how to seize the day and the moment, and made the most of it.

5) Smooth is a variable, as are the grit and grace needed to achieve success
Common knowledge suggests that for a new skill or behavior to become established, it should first be practiced slowly and deliberately, with reinforcement. We now know that the number and range of days it takes to learn a new skill or behavior to achieve “smooth” varies quite a bit. A research study by Phillippa Lally at University College London offers these findings. It takes:

  • 66 days, or more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic.
  • A range which can vary from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit, depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

Could you use a 30% boost in the ability to reaching your organization’s goals?

The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions, article in The New York Times

Performing any action too fast will sacrifice technique which will impair development. It is also clear to leaders that complexity, social trends, technology, environment and uniqueness of professions are important in the mix and are awaiting the science to help us understand more. What is known today is that the social connection and passion for the work one does cannot be underestimated.

There is updated research to back this up. A recent article by the New York Times entitled, “The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions,” shares research showing that “pride, gratitude and compassion …reduce[s] the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. …Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Could you use a 30% boost in the ability to reaching your organization’s goals?

Three Leadership Strategies to Surpass 10,000 Hours of Practice

Using the ideas above, here are three ways for you to improve your leadership quality and finesse:

1) Create a natural rhythm to pause, reflect, and choose a “right action” strategy.
Create awareness by regularly reviewing your meeting practices and yearly planning cycle timing and methods in order to avoid the Rigidity Trap.  Ask yourself and your team strategic questions. This can also be facilitated by working with a leadership coach who specializes in asking “right action” questions, helping you create a strategic space to choose appropriate scheduling and pacing.

2) Refocus & reframe if something isn’t working.
Learn from errors and mistakes. One or two mistakes usually have little impact on your long-term goal to establish a new behavior or habit. Pivot and clarify a new strategy to get back on track quickly to continue your work on “smooth is fast.”

3) Combine grace and grit to commit to co-creating planning goals and build the momentum to reach them.
Creating positive connection with others creates followership, and followers can help you create ownership, engagement and momentum. When setting forth goals, plans and actions, take a moment connect them to your passion and love for what you do in your work. Create a space in events in meetings to allow others to do the same. Mantras and sayings which you discover, develop and adopt together, and repeat to followers, can help to create a positive, “preferred future” force and finesse in your planning work.

As Pelé, the renown soccer athlete has said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Sources: Mark Divine, SealFit:  Slow Is Smooth…Smooth Is Fast, Business Insider & Sage Publications

James Clear: How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (backed by science) and How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world

Leave a comment below, or learn more, have a chat. Contact Deb via email or phone here.

Photo credits: Top photo of LUCA, Flickr CC  of Driver: Lewis Hamilton, another four-time Formula One World Champion, driving a McLaren Mercedes, All other photos: Deb Nystrom

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons agreement

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dnrevel

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