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Malcolm Gladwell tells us in Outliers that when it comes to success, context is everything. Only by asking where a person comes from can we understand who succeeds and who doesn’t. Geoff Colvin would agree but there’s more.

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin rightly asserts that “great performance is in our hands far more than most of us ever suspected.”

When many people never become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, why do some people become excellent at what they do?

Colvin convincingly argues that in general, it’s not innate gifts or intelligence, but what researchers call deliberate practice that creates world-class performers.

A study by Anders Ericsson and his associates concluded that “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

Deliberate practice is not your normal practice.

It contains several important elements:

  • it’s designed specifically to improve performance (usually with a teacher or coach),
  • it can be repeated ad nauseam,
  • feedback on results are continuously available,
  • it’s highly demanding mentally (focus and concentration),
  • and it isn’t much fun.

Add passion and the good news is that great performance is not reserved for a preordained few.

It is available to everyone.

If such deliberate practice produces great performance, how does this apply to leadership development—specifically to developing movement leaders? Is this how leaders are developed?

Colvin writes that organizations that apply the principles of great performance follow several major rules:

   1. Understand that each person in the organization is not just doing a job, but is also being stretched and grown. The best organizations assign people to jobs to push them just beyond their current capabilities and build the skills that are most important. Organizations tend to assign people based on what they’re already good at, not what they need to work on.

   2. Find ways to develop leaders within their jobs. One technique: short-term work assignments in which leaders take on an additional assignment outside their field of expertise.

   3. Encourage their leaders to be active in their communities. Community leadership roles are opportunities for employees to practice skills that will be valuable at work.

   4. Understand the critical roles of teachers and of feedback. At most organizations, nobody is in the role of teacher or coach. Employees aren’t told which skills will be most helpful to them and certainly aren’t told how to best develop them.

   5. Identify promising performers early. A telling indicator is how interns get others to work with them when they have absolutely no authority.

6. Understand that people development works best through inspiration not authority.

   7. Invest significant time, money, and energy in developing people. You don’t develop people on the cheap, and you don’t just bolt a development program onto existing HR procedures.

   8. Make leadership development part of the culture. Developing leaders isn’t a program, it’s a way of living.