Kevin Eikenberry

Article Summary:

How to improve your leadership skills through "play" versus "practice".

Effective Leadership Skills: Are You Playing or Practicing?

Anne was a new supervisor, and like many new supervisors she took the new role as a manager and leader seriously. She took advantage of training that was offered to her. She learned how to do performance reviews effectively, listened to other leaders to learn from them. She read several books recommended to her by others.

More importantly she tried hard to apply what she was learning. Anne was practicing leadership.

When we are diligent in practicing anything we are consciously practicing our skills. We are trying things again and again to get better. We are focused on fundamentals. Something happens to many of us though when we begin to get comfortable with our new skills - whether they are leadership skills or sewing skills or tennis skills. We stop practicing and start playing.

What is the difference?

When we can consistently get the tennis serve in, we tend to want to play matches more than to continue to practice that serve. Once we have the sewing basics down (or so it seems) we want to make something. In both cases our focus moves to something other than getting better - because that is what "practice" is for.

Are you playing or practicing leadership?

This question applies to brand new supervisors and experienced leaders. If you want to improve your skills as a leader you have to practice, not just play. Here are five things you can do to continue to practice your leadership skills.

Be a continuous learner.
We practice to get better. Anne as an eager (and maybe scared) new leader was like a sponge. She soaked up everything she could learn about leadership. Practice requires new information and knowledge, be it in the form of advice from a person, a book, or observation. Remain open to new ideas and then consciously integrate them into your leadership activities.

Get feedback.
If you are practicing a sport, you expect a coach to give you feedback on your progress. Your practicing of leadership should be no different. Many organizations have a 360 process that allows leaders to get feedback from those they lead. This feedback can be valuable, but you can get feedback without this formal process. Ask people how you are doing. Ask them specific questions about specific situations. At first they may not provide you much information, but if you consistently ask and obviously value the input (by doing something with it over time); you will get more insights from people. Get feedback from other leaders as well. Build a network of people you can get ideas and feedback from.

You can read, ask and do all sorts of things to collect ideas and approaches. All of it is valuable. But none of that can be applied effectively without you taking time to reflect on it and determine what will work for you and why. The best practice includes a chance to personally reflect on your work. As a speaker and trainer, I take time after every workshop, seminar or speech to reflect on what I did, why I did it, what I would do again, what I should adjust, etc. The same process is necessary for us as leaders. Be mindful of your results. Review them in your mind. Make decisions for "next time." Without a commitment to reflection you will always compromise the benefits you can gain from practice.

Try new things.
The learning, feedback and reflection will be of no tangible use unless you do something with it. A practice mindset allows you to try a different approach. If you are playing tennis you might be afraid to try the new technique for fear it might backfire. But the new technique becomes less risky when you have practiced it over and over. Find your lower risk opportunities to try new things. And try things that aren't risky often. By being willing to try the new approach you will make real progress. After all, if you never try anything new, how will you get better at anything, including leadership?

Use your skills in other situations.
Practice in most contexts is a lower risk situation. One of the best ways to practice leadership is to find other areas of life in which to lead. Volunteer to lead a project in your community. Organize a neighborhood event. Lead a group at your church. Apply all of the things you are trying to learn at work in these situations. Use these as opportunities not only to do something valuable, but as your own personal leadership learning laboratory.

Taking these steps will help you to remain a leadership learner. They will keep you fresh and on your game. They will keep you practicing, and not just playing leadership.

Kevin Eikenberry is an expert in converting organizational, team and individual potential into desired results, and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group. He is the two-time best selling author of "Vantagepoints On Learning And Life" and "Remarkable Leadership: Unleashing Your Leadership Potential One Skill at a Time." Kevin has spent the last 15 years helping organizations all across North America reach their potential. His specialties include: teams and teamwork, creativity, developing organizational and individual potential, facilitation, training trainers, presentation skills, consulting and the consulting process and more. He offers monthly tele-seminars through a program called the Remarkable Leadership Learning System. Kevin can be reached at (317) 387-1424 or 888.LEARNER and through his website,

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