By January 31, 2011Business

I suppose it is inevitable that a relatively new academic field will get rather mired in definitions and distinctions before it eventually moves on to more practical matters. While the cognitive psychologists and moral philosophers would doubtless argue that right thought leads to right action, I am rather bored of leadership being so theoretical. Leadership is a fundamentally messy activity, and research across the disciplines shows that ‘trial and error’ tends to be far better teacher than any guru in a book or a classroom. To me, the word is also problematic. Leadership feels more like title or status rather than on-going activity. So I am now going to call it leadersmithing, because it is about apprenticeship, craft, and hours of practice.

What associations do you have with the word ‘practice?’ My guess is either panic about usage and spelling (I’ve always found advice/se is the best key as they sound different), or bad memories of childhood music lessons (I used to hide my book inside the piano and practise my scales one-handed while reading). Either way, Gladwell’s view that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to create mastery is very sobering. Luckily, when it comes to leadersmithing, I don’t agree with him.

I was once given a very beautiful miniature marble font. It is an old apprentice piece produced by a stonemason to show that he was ready to become a journeyman or a master. Whether you consider Alasdair MacIntyre’s practices; the idea of ‘mastery experiences’ or Ashridge’s own research into ‘critical incidents,’ I think that the future of developing leadersmithing is all about the accelerated acquisition of skill in the foundational practices of leading. We got our list by asking the masters what they know now they wish they’d known 10 years ago. And from what we know of neurobiology, the more emotionally charged the situation in which these skills are acquired, the deeper the resulting memory, and thus its retrieveability under pressure. Want to DIY? Ask your own leaders which they consider to be your organisation’s ‘apprentice pieces’ for leading, and make your future leaders demonstrate skill in each of them, under pressure, before you consider them job-ready. Or send them to Ashridge and we’ll do it for you.

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