How to Practice / How to Lead

I asked my piano teacher to help me create a practice plan. I have noticed that each day when I sit at the piano, after a few warm-up exercises, I find myself uncertain how to make the most of the time. I bounce around from this exercise to that song, from this chord pattern to that one, inevitably feeling a mix of satisfaction for having spent the time and uncertainty as to its greater value to my education.

She practically beamed at the question. It was one of those “when the student is ready” moments that is just the right approach for this adult learner.

Her recommendation, regardless of how much time I have to practice, is to break it down as follows:

  • 25% – Warm-up
  • 50% – Focus on songs I have chosen to learn
  • 25% – Something new, something fun

As soon as she mapped this simple structure for me I relaxed with the knowledge that comes with a coherent game plan. She gave me a container, a way to structure myself that allows me to proceed with more purposeful and directed action.

On the drive home I concluded that this would also be an excellent approach for the daily practice of leading others.

What if, each day, you “warmed up” by briefly checking in with each member of the team? You could ask how the previous day finished up for them, how their evening was and how they’re feeling about the day ahead. Just a few moments with each person to greet them into this new day and remind them that you are there, also, attentive and engaged in their success.

What if you then focused on your  most important projects and initiatives? This includes your desk work, responding to requests, organizing information, planning for and attending the necessary (and unnecessary?) meetings in which you establish and sustain the forward motion of the work itself. What would or could be different about this core part of your day if you begin each day with the “warm up” described above?

What if then, no matter how busy the day becomes and how aggressively it threatens to get away from you, you took the time to do something fun and/or something new? This could include that reading you’ve been putting off, some quiet reflection about a difficult question or situation, a walk outside with a colleague, a celebration of a team member’s or project team’s accomplishment, a team building activity to break up the mid-afternoon slump, or simply a “warm down,” checking in with your team members at the close of the day.

Perhaps you’ve already done the math on this idea and found that in a 9 or 10 hour day that’s over four hours of “stuff” that is very much not you sitting at a desk and doing the work itself. And with that realization you may dismiss this out of hand as pie-in-the-sky thinking that is out of touch with your reality.

I would gently remind you of two things: first, your job as a leader is to help the team be successful which means that you have to be with them an awful lot. And second, you have more freedom in the design of your day than you may choose to admit. When you recommit to your team’s success and reclaim your calendar you will find as I am discovering with the piano, that a thoughtfully applied “practice” plan allows you to relax into the work in both unexpected and rewarding ways.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

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