“But I have to practice”

It has been exciting to watch the Olympics in London, to see all of the practice, effort, resilience of these athletes on display for the world to appreciate. Yesterday I was talking to my two and a half-year old niece on the phone, while she was watching the cyclists in the velodrome. Her mom asked if she wanted to be a cyclist when she was older. She wasn’t interested in cycling, but a swimmer, well that was really cool.  But here is the kicker, she said, “but I have to practice”.

It seems that we recognize that to become an elite athlete, we have to practice, sometimes for ten, fifteen or twenty years. Oh, and we have to have some kind of athletic talent, and the drive and desire to put in the effort it takes to develop into a world-class athlete. Not everyone can be on the Olympic stage, never mind winning a medal. And yes, there is a bit of luck to all of it.

So why is it that we tell people that there is a leader in everyone? That they can become a leader merely if they desire it?  Doesn’t leadership take talent, practice, resilience, desire and drive?  It is hard enough to become a leader when one possesses all of these traits and behaviours. We also tend to emphasize the glory of leadership, rather than its sacrifices. Is it not surprising that the multi-billion dollar leadership industry is littered with less than effective leadership interventions?

The Olympics are riddled with sad stories of medal contenders who didn’t achieve the hoped for result.  Paula Findlay of Canada, widely considered a medal hopeful in the triathalon, came in last. She had experienced a hip injury last year, and was only just back to competing. Partway through the race, she wanted to quit, but was encouraged to finish. And so she did, in great pain, dead last, but she finished. It is that grit that will help her deal with her disappointment after the games are over. And, if she heals from the injury, it will help her rebuilt her athletic career.

Leadership takes practice.  First as a follower, then as a leader. It takes years to become an effective leader.  It takes resilience, drive, passion, determination, and the willingness to experience failure. Oh, and a bit of luck too.


Categories: Leadership, Learning

4 replies »

  1. I could not agree more.

    We tell Everyone that they can Lead from children to teens to adults. The reality is that it might be true or even possible. However, there is no conversation regarding what it takes to become an effective leader.

    There are several Prices of Leadership. You have named a few of the developed and practiced traits. I believe that another undiscussed trait is that at the end of the day “nobody cares.” As a Leader, resilience, drive, passion, determination and failure are require but another reality is the acceptance that to others (whoever they are) your performance is more important than your feelings. Some people believe that has to be acceptable but no one tells you this as you develop, practice and follow.

    We need to discuss more of this Price of Leadership as we do the the Qualities of Leaders.


  2. Thought provoking, as usual, Colleen. You’re right – thinking is hard work! I guess what I want to say is I agree AND I disagree. First off, in terms of whether everyone can be a leader, I guess that depends on what we’re talking about when we talk about leadership. I like to think of leadership as a process – in essence, the motivating and organizing and directing it takes to make something happen. And the leader is the person or persons assuming responsibility for making it happen. It’s a role. And who can do it depends on what it is we’re trying to make happen. Can anyone put themselves out there to make something good happen – absolutely! It might be getting the city to agree to creating a neighbourhood park, organizing a food drive, spearheading a campaign to stop something from happening. We need grassroots leadership as much as we need organizational and political Leadership. It’s all leadership – the continuum is one of complexity in terms of how many obstacles, barriers to overcome, how many people involved, how many things need to happen in order for IT to happen. I do believe every single human being has the capacity to be a leader in some context or other. Having said that, I think there are legitimate qualifications when assuming an ongoing leadership role, as in an organzation. And in that respect, even with grassroots, I agree very much with the concept of leadership being a practice. In fact, the leadership program I coordinate for public library staff advocates a practice-based approach to leadership – practice in the sense that it’s something we need to always work at AND practice in the sense of being a professional calling, much like a doctor’s practice.

    • I think that’s why I love talking with you about these issues. Although we don’t always agree, you always make me think.

      I agree that there is a difference between the formal role of a leader and the informal emergence of a leader in an unstructured environment. I guess my point is that there are skills in leadership that must be developed consciously, they don’t simply arrive one day perfectly formed. In order to develop these skills we need to practice. We must make a decision or a choice to put our efforts into practicing these skills if we are going to be effective leaders. In other words, whether we step into formal roles as leaders or emerge in an informal situation as a leader, we make a conscious choice to lead.

      Not all of us chose to develop our leadership skills and not all of us choose to lead. People with modest talent can become successful leaders, because of desire and effort. People with tremendous leadership talent may not become successful leaders if they don’t have the desire or put in the effort and sacrifice it requires.

      Not all of us have the desire or talents to be an effective leader (in either a formal role or an emergent situation), just the same as all of us don’t have the talents or desire to be an Olympic athlete. That said, we can contribute effectively in many ways.

      I suspect that we will always see things a little bit differently. For example, I see your example of the librarian leadership program much more in the area of effectiveness – that is improving the effectiveness of individuals in the profession, whether leading or following. And that is a very good thing.

      It’s great to hear from you, and I hope we see you out at the iWIL talks this fall. I’ll be going up first in September with a talk on “Leadership as a Relationship”, looking at the nature of the interaction between leaders and members (a fancy academic term for followers… I like it better but it’s sometimes confusing).


      • I agree – practice is crucial and one of the mistakes we’ve made historically is to believe some people are born leaders and don’t have to practice. Leadership is a way of being and we all have to practice doing it well so that whatever we’re trying to accomplish gets accomplished. That’s just as true for nations and organizations as it is for grassroots efforts. Yes, I like the way we stretch each other’s thinking!

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