Practicing to become a better leader

Leadership  Learning
28 March, 2016

Up your leadership game with regular practice

When someone once asked Charlie Chaplin what it takes to come up with a great idea, he said it was “sheer perseverance to the point of madness.” Chaplin, for all his bumbling antics on screen, was a very different person off screen. Known to be almost fanatical about perfection, he would spend several hours in rehearsal. An often shared story around this is of his famous movie, The Circus. The movie is about a man walking a tightrope who runs into successive unplanned obstacles during his act. Not only did Chaplin spend many months in training, but he did over seven hundred takes till he got the tightrope walking just perfect. The scene is counted among Hollywood’s classic greats.

Chaplin, of course, was not alone in this. There are no shortcuts – no matter how talented you may be. You just have to get out there and practice, and then practice some more. That’s how you sharpen your skills. That’s how you excel. Athletes, musicians, artists – there are so many stories of people you know and admire who have reached great heights from sheer hard work and practice. It’s an almost universal truth.

I don’t think any of you would disagree that learning a new skill or becoming better at one requires sustained practice. But not many of us think about leadership in this way. We associate practice with the performing arts, sports and academics. But not necessarily with leadership.

So, in my message today, I want to talk about why we should practice leadership as we would practice any other skill. Bottom line, if you want to become a better leader, you have to practice becoming one.

Remember, there are no born leaders. And leadership can’t be learned in the isolation of theory. Leaders are nurtured and grow through opportunity and experience.  Leadership develops when you practice your skills over a series of diverse experiences.

How you can start practicing leadership

To borrow from the American football legend Vince Lombardi, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

But before you get started on practicing leadership, introspect and ask yourself, what is it exactly that you need to practice? What kind of leader do you want to be? What is it that you need to do (more of) to get there?

Once you have some perspective on that, here are some suggestions on how you can start practising:

1. Set up your own internal leadership learning lab

Practicing leadership will demand a fair bit of commitment. A great way to start is by setting up your own ecosystem or ‘learning lab.’ Build this in a way that works best for you.

  1. Keep adding to your knowledge. Read, watch, and be on the lookout for new ideas. Find ways to integrate these new ideas in your interactions and your approach at work.
  2. Open yourself to feedback. Don’t wait for the annual review to find out how you’re doing. Create a network of trusted peers and managers who will give you more frequent and constructive feedback.
  3. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. There’s always room for improvement. Make a plan for what you might do differently the next time.
  4. Apply your learning in other areas. The office isn’t the only place to lead. Why not sign up to coach your children’s sports team? Or volunteer your skills at an NGO of your choice?

2. Invest more time in coaching future leaders

Tony Blair once said, “Leaders lead but in the end, it’s the people who deliver.” It’s our job as leaders to groom the next set of leaders at Godrej. We will only be as strong as our teams. So we have to get much better at coaching people to be their best and invest in building a strong talent pipeline.

There is no better way of practicing leadership than by actually coaching someone else in leadership. I am sure that many of you will agree that you have probably learned as much, if not more, about yourselves while coaching others.

So, with your team members, give clear, frequent and meaningful feedback. Provide opportunities for them to strengthen and practice their leadership skills. Stretch them.

3. Build practice in your everyday routine

Reading about leadership will only go so far. You have to experience leadership.

Malcolm Gladwell popularised Andre Ericsson’s original study on how much practice is necessary to achieve perfection. Today, you know it as the 10,000-hour rule.

Ericsson studied violinists who began their practice at the age of 5. By the time a violinist had achieved the level of an elite performer, she had practiced for 10,000 hours. She reached this level of achievement usually no earlier than the age of 20.

Going by that theory, it would take 10,000 hours of just practicing leadership to make perfect leaders. Most organisations don’t have or want to wait for that long, especially since all of this practice is in addition to the person’s other professional and personal responsibilities.

But what if instead of treating practicing leadership as something extra that you have to do – something separate from your regular work – you flip on its head and make practice a way of working? Build it in your everyday routine. Create moments every day to fine tune your leadership approach and style – in terms of how you manage your teams, interact with your peers and handle your tasks.

4. Experiment

Overall, as leaders we need to get much better at thriving in uncertainty. And this starts with being more comfortable with and open to experimenting.

Look for or create opportunities that allow you to try new approaches. Only then will you be able to push your own boundaries. Don’t worry about the risk and all that which can go wrong. The only way we can impact real change is if we can create a larger culture of experimentation. This is the attitude and approach you need to communicate to your team.

Think about it. At the rate of change in today’s world, how can we know now what products we need to create or the people we need to engage with in the years ahead? These answers will come to us only if we begin experimenting now.

Something very powerful happens when you practice a skill repeatedly. Somewhere along the line you stop practicing and start playing, as the article Effective Leadership Skills: Are You Playing or Practicing? by organisational expert Kevin Eikenberry puts it. Like with cricket or tennis or golf, you better your swing or serve with practice. The more you practice, the better your game becomes. The better your game becomes, the more you practice. And then, at this new level, you start focusing your practice on a different aspect of your game. The cycle starts again. That’s the whole point of practice. And those are the kinds of leaders we want to groom at Godrej – people who believe that they are only as good as the effort they put in to better themselves.

Many of you are probably practicing leadership in different ways. Do write in and share your experiences with our team.


  • Ajay says:

    Great post. Opening yourself to change your leadership style is also a big challenge, be open to it & yes practise hard!


Join the 8AM conversation