As a  leader,  entrepreneur, and professor, I used to enjoy TED talks and learning about frontier science. Do you feel, watching them, like I felt: "This is forefront stuff. Since most people don't know it, I can use it to get ahead!"?

Same with Malcolm Gladwell books: "He knows breaking research. When I know it too, I'll have an insight to get ahead."

We want the latest research to get ahead, to give us an edge.

Sounds great. Only that's not how greats get great.

The Folly of TED and the Best Seller

Those talks and best-sellers generally promise two things. The first is the promise of the great insight. If you get this one insight--ten thousand hours, golden circles, grit, and so on--you'll get great.

The second is they entertain. TED talks are highly structured and edited. The books follow effective structures, told by great storytellers. They're engaging.

The problem is: No great leader or entrepreneur got great from learning the latest science, nor from being entertained from someone else's experience.

They got great through their own experience. But not just any experience.

How the Greats Get Great

Among the many TED talks on leadership skills, have you noticed there are no TED talks on how to play basketball? Nor on how to learn to play piano or act?

Is there something missing? Why isn't there more research there? Do we not know how to create basketball players, pianists, or actors?

On the contrary, we know how to create them better than we know how to create leaders. Compare the competitors in the NBA finals with our candidates for President.

There are no TED talks on how to act because we don't need the latest science to tell us how. We also know that if someone wants to learn to play piano, entertaining them with stories doesn't help.

What helps?

Practice. Experience. Practicing the basics first. Maybe, just maybe, after mastering the basics enough, some science may help, but pick a great leader in history you admire. Did he or she get great by reading more books on theory or practicing?

Or by doing?


This video shows LeBron James practicing for one hour. No magic. No excitement. No latest anything. No entertaining story. He obviously does it a lot.

Just a small piece of what it takes to become the best.

Not just to be the best, but to lead a team to a championship. Is it a coincidence that his training made him a leader?

Here's another by Steve Nash, a twenty-minute workout with no fancy editing or preparation.

Just a small piece of what makes a short Canadian into a two-time league MVP.

These videos show the opposite of the mainstream direction in leadership development. These players could have watched three or four TED talks in that time. They could have read books.

What These Videos Show

I know most of you won't watch all nearly ninety minutes of these videos. You don't have to if you aren't a basketball player, but you might want to anyway, because if you clicked to read this article because the headline mentioned "breakthrough science," you're looking in the wrong direction.

In these videos you'll see what can make you great:

  • No latest science
  • No one amazing insight
  • No secret or mystery
  • Consistency
  • Discipline
  • Practicing when the stakes are low so when the stakes are high you're prepared
  • Getting used to fatigue
  • Working on your weaknesses
  • Learning about yourself--body and mind
  • Basics
  • Practice
  • Rehearsal
  • A coach (for one of them)
  • Drills
  • Doing, acting, performing

Have you done exercises for the skills you lack or are weak on, let alone focused on them? Have you identified them?

Have you worked on your basics? Or do you just hope for the best?

Why Leadership Is Like Basketball, Piano, and Acting

Basketball, piano, and acting aren't traditional academic subjects. We don't learn them through lecture, no matter how well produced, nor reading.

We learn them through practicing the basics. What are they if not traditional academic subjects? They are active, social, emotional, experiential, and performance-based (what I call ASEEP fields).

Leadership is an ASEEP field.

I'm not saying you should learn to play basketball to lead. But you will benefit from training similarly. None of the points listed above are specific to basketball. All apply to leading.

You can learn more from LeBron, Nash, or nearly any great historical leader on how to improve your leadership skills than from researchers and writers. After all they're leaders.

So next time you want to improve, think about practicing before watching or reading.