Athletes practice all of the time in order to improve their performance, even the great ones. Rafael Nadal, Tiger Woods, Adrian Peterson, Kobe Bryant- they all continue to hone their craft and their skills to reach their peak and stay there, and to even add new tricks to counteract the effects of aging. Musicians rehearse on a constant basis, whether classical, jazz or rock. The point is that to perform well, the greats have to work hard.
The same should and does hold true in business. Being a strong leader takes practice. It is not like “riding a bicycle”. Competencies that are not used can dissipate or disappear. Leaders should be conscious of those traits that have served them well in their careers and make sure they continue to utilize them.
Great leaders are known for their communication, their decision-making, their vision, their discipline, their creation of a culture of accountability. They are known for innovation, the way they create and build strong teams and the way they develop their employees and help them achieve success. None of these ever stop being important. When leaders get distracted or get focused on another project, they may not take the time to do everything that they used to and to catch the off notes and see the slight flaws that may be indicative of something deeper going on in the organization that needs to be addressed.
Great communicators can never believe that they have it down pat and therefore they don’t have to think about it anymore or have to work at it as hard. The troops get used to a high level of communication and any drop off from that signals a negative change. Any slippage is noticed. Some folks will take advantage of it and others will see it as a sign of decline and will lower their own standards or seek employment elsewhere.
Talented leaders often feel they can add more to their workload without their current responsibilities suffering. Everyone has a limit and upon reaching that limit, something has to give. Whether consciously or unconsciously, leaders may scale back their efforts in certain areas and literally fall out of practice in using the competencies that support those areas. It may take a while, but employees will notice and then begin drawing conclusions and acting according to the conclusions reached- the boss doesn’t care as much, standards are changing, something is wrong.
When any top pro golfer practices at the driving range, he works his way through every club in his golf bag. He has to be proficient in the use of every club. A musician doesn’t just practice some of the notes or chords. Comedians don’t just start on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. They hone their act, adding and subtracting bits, changing timing, intonations and facial expressions. As Althea Gibson, the great tennis player, said “Most of us who aspire to be tops in our fields don’t really consider the amount of work required to stay tops.”
Try as they might, leaders may have a hard time tracking their own behavior. They are so busy getting things done or seeing that they get done, that they lose track of how they are going about it. There are ways to help them. An organization can create a feedback committee that is regularly giving the leaders feedback on their behaviors and the use of their key competencies. Surveys or 360 degree assessments can be made a regular part of the leader’s development. This holds true even for the CEO. Another option is an executive coach who works with the leaders on self-awareness and the application of their skills.
The bottom line is that leaders, like top performers in other arenas, need to use those competencies that make them great on an ongoing basis. It is possible to get rusty. It is possible to lose touch with what has taken someone to a high level. And it is possible for an inflated ego to get in the way of continuous success. Getting to the top is only part of the journey. Staying there is another part. That takes work, practice, more work and more practice.