Late Breaking Performance Improvement Research from Aristotle

Posted 05.01.2009

The French have this great line, “Tout est nouveau, vieux nouveau,” which more or less translates as “Everything old is new again.”  A New York Times column called “Genius: The Modern View,”  sort of proves the wisdom of that line.  Brooks summarized the conclusions of two recent books, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin to make the point that lots of deliberate practice is what made Mozart one of the all time musical greats and has Tiger Woods on track to be the greatest golfer of all time.

Aristotle The new research Brooks talks about is interesting but it essentially illustrates something Aristotle said over 2,000 years ago, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  If there’s one idea that informs the way I think about coaching and performance improvement, that’s it.  What some of the newer books are adding to the Aristotelian guidance is more detail about how to put the core idea into practice.  Brooks does a nice job of breaking the detail down into tangible steps:

  1. Look for a strength to build on. (e.g. “natural” technical skills, leadership skills, athletic skills, etc.)
  2. Create a picture of best case performance by identifying some role models who have accomplished a lot in the domain of that strength. (e.g. young Tiger had a picture of Jack Nicklaus on his bedroom wall.)
  3. Go deep in that strength. Observe, read and think as much as you can about it.
  4. Practice that strength in a way that breaks the various components down into highly discrete and identifiable behaviors.
  5. Focus on becoming conscious of unconscious behaviors and actions.
  6. Find a coach or mentor who can provide the outside-in perspective to reinforce positive behaviors and point out and correct non-productive behaviors.
  7. When you’ve mastered one or more of the behaviors, go back to step 4, identify some additional components and repeat steps 4, 5 and 6.

So, it’s that easy, right?  Umm, maybe not.  In my coaching experience, the difference between leaders who improve by leaps and bounds and those who don’t is the clarity of the developmental focus and the willingness and motivation to follow through. The follow through is otherwise known by that nasty word called “practice.”  The good news is that everyday life presents all kinds of opportunities for intentional practice. 

It’s what I call the “school of real life.”  My point as a coach is that your calendar is full of stuff every week that you’re going to do anyway.  So, if you’re going to do all of that stuff anyway, why not approach your calendar with the additional intent of using your daily activities to learn how to be a better leader by practicing one or two specific behaviors (e.g. listening, asking good questions, delegating work to others, showing confidence in presentations, etc.) that could make you a better leader?  Life is one big learning opportunity. Why not approach it with some clear intention around continuous improvement?

I’ll turn it back to David Brooks for an inspiring conclusion:

“Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”