Too often we think of leadership as something that we'll do in the future. In doing so, we fail to see the dozens of opportunities that work and life presents each day to practice. Not only are there missed opportunities to have more impact, we also lose important opportunities to make mistakes and learn so when the stakes get higher (often as we grow in our careers) we're prepared to take on bigger challenges.
Long-standing studies show time and again that becoming an expert in anything requires purposeful, deliberate practice. Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance describes why in this interview on National Public Radio's Hidden Brain. Duckworth refers to dozens of examples of "hard things" we face and learn in life. Leadership, of course, is not different.
So, how do you deliberately practice leadership?
- Take a day to simply notice what is said and not said in the meetings you attend. What are people talking about or speculating on after the meeting? Was there a chance to speak up and ask a more probing, thought-provoking question? There always is. Despite the intense volume and duration of meetings we all attend, there is something unspoken in each one.
- Describe issues you unearth in a way that gets to the essence of the issue. Skip personal asides on your coworkers' skills and motivations. Saying that John's missing a deadline again that will delay the product release because he's lazy and doesn't know what he's doing is 1) not objective and 2) doesn't leave room for the more likely systemic causes. Instead, saying that a product delay is imminent because there is a lack of clear roles and responsibilities among the delivery team leads to a more logical action--have a meeting and get clear on roles and actions, then reconsider the schedule. Of course, don't say anything about someone that you wouldn't say to their face. It's simple and is the fastest way to demonstrate your trustworthiness and integrity. If you must vent, call your dog.
- Draft talking points on the future you see for your division, product, or service. Sprinkle these into conversations with your colleagues and your boss when the topic comes up. In terms of a daily practice, before you leave each meeting, make a note or an action that moves the work within your span of control in that direction--never mind if it's just you at this point. Asserting some autonomy over your activities is an important thing that leaders do and you can too.
- Similarly, have a perspective on where your industry is going and how your company is going to win that future or what it needs to reconsider its positioning. Thinking outside of the boundaries of your organization isn't just reserved for titled leaders. You have as much access to information on trends in customer demands and competitor supplies as everyone else. If you don't know a handful of recent statistics and have an opinion on how those impact your business, take an afternoon to do some research. Once you have this baseline, bring your thoughts and ideas to the leadership team and offer tips and suggestions on how to move the business to the next level.
There are an infinite number of opportunities to take a leadership role from exactly where you are in your organization today. Seeing these openings is a way to start a daily, deliberate leadership practice that will accelerate your career growth and land you in increasing influential positions sooner.