Jun 2, 2022 7 min read

Using Deliberate Practice to Increase Leadership Effectiveness

Using deliberate practice in conversations is one way to increase leadership effectiveness.

Deliberate practice is one of the few proven research-backed frameworks to improve performance. But it's not used enough in leadership development. Here's one way to implement it to increase leadership effectiveness.


The vagueness of communication

Language is the medium of leadership and conversations are its core building blocks. It follows that adding more rigor to our conversations can increase our effectiveness as leaders.

One way to increase rigor is to learn and implement a typology of conversations in communications.

How many times have we heard that as leaders and managers we need to be excellent communicators. The word communication can be very vague and all encompassing causing us to go numb to it every time we read or hear about it.

And yet it’s the most important, and at the same time common, action that we managers do on a daily basis. Managerial work can be thought of as a series of conversations and management of those conversations.

Conversations are the doing of the manager. Engineers engineer, designers design and managers manage. But the action of managing happens through conversations.

Conversations are the instrument through which managers move things forward. But most of the time this instrument is blunt and ineffective due to lack of attention and lack of awareness.

While most of us might intuitively recognize the importance of conversations, it does not get the attention that it deserves either due to lack of awareness or just being taken for granted. It does not occur to us as an opportunity for improvement.

One way of changing this non-actionable stance towards communication is to learn and implement a typology of conversations.

It is not necessarily a formula for getting better at this most basic function of managing, but rather about learning the distinctions and vocabulary of conversations  so that we can get better at this skill.

Deliberate practice and world-class performance

Ron Friedman in Decoding Greatness cites the research of K. Anders Ericcson into how world-class experts get to the top of their game. [1]

The less attention we pay to our actions, the harder it becomes for us to elevate our performance or acquire new skills. And herein lies a paradox.

Experience begets automaticity. And automaticity stifles learning. How, then, do you improve on a task you already perform reasonably well?

The answer comes to us from the work of the late cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson, a distinguished researcher, was best known for a 1993 study of violinists that became the basis for the “10,000-hour rule”—the popular notion that mastering a skill requires focused, feedback-rich practice over a lengthy period of time.

Drawing on decades of research into the lives of top performers, Ericsson identified the precise features of practice that contribute most to skill building and expertise.

The most effective practice, Ericsson found, tackles perceived weaknesses, or elements of an activity that you find especially difficult to execute.

Another key is to break down complex tasks and isolate specific aspects, focusing on them one at a time.

Ideally, feedback is immediate, enabling you to make incremental adjustments and try again, thereby ensuring that the time you invest practicing translates into gradual improvement and growth. [1]

There is an element of automaticity and familiarity when it comes to conversations. We assume because we are doing it often that we are relatively good at it and this is true for most leaders. But being good enough at it might not help us stand out or be more effective.

Some of the core elements of deliberate practice are isolation, repetition, immediacy of performance, feedback, focus and metacognition.

Having a conversational typology addresses several of these elements that Ericsson mentions in his research.

Applying deliberate practice to conversations is one way to improve leadership effectiveness.
The Young Sabot Maker, Henry Ossawa Tanner, via Wikimedia Commons

Practicing conversations for effective leadership

How does learning and practicing different types of conversations help with improving leadership effectiveness?

Builds awareness and metacognition around conversations

The first step in getting better at anything is awareness and attention. As human beings, whatever we pay attention to gets stronger over time, and whatever we don’t, tends to atrophy.

Human beings are expert learners provided we recognize something as worth learning and  start paying attention to it. We cannot improve at something we are unaware of.

Helps build a vocabulary of meaningful distinctions

One of the key elements of deliberate practice is isolation where one picks out specific aspects of a skill to be practiced. These aspects can be thought of as building a vocabulary to increase awareness or more accurately building our meaningful distinctions about a particular subject or skill that we are trying to master.

Tiger Woods has a lot more meaningful distinctions and vocabulary about a golf swing compared to an amateur. These distinctions are not only cognitive but also embodied that one develops over time with practice.

Having a conversational typology gives us the vocabulary to start building meaningful distinctions about conversations and communication.

Makes communication more actionable and tangible

Rather than  having a vague, amorphous sense of what conversations or communications entail, a typology gives actionable access to the domain of communication that can help increase rigor.

It’s almost a cliche when we hear that as leaders one should communicate more and communicate better. How can one do that? Just increasing the volume cannot be the answer if it is not effective to begin with.

Our communication needs to translate into results and the conversational typology helps  do just that, by taking the vague notion of communication and converting into more actionable conversations based on what the situation requires.

A typology can open up possibilities and give an increased  capacity for action that was not necessarily available before. It makes the whole concept of “leadership communication” more actionable and thus more accessible.

Helps build a common context

Context is decisive and even more so when it comes to communication. Context is what builds shared understanding in conversations.

Without a context two people can walk away with completely different notions of what the conversation was about and what the resulting actions and commitments were if there were any.

Having a typology sets a context and common ground for all parties involved. Identifying the particular type sets the context for the conversation rather than just focussing on the content.

You are zooming out in order to get a better view of what that conversation is meant to achieve.

Enables feedback and measurement

Everyone tends to have a bias for certain kinds of conversations. Some managers operate primarily in the domain of performance conversations while others might be spending more time in understanding conversations.  

In line with the oft quoted cliche of “what gets measured, gets done”, having a typology gives us a measurable way to track progress.

Often we might not be making progress simply because we are having more of a certain type of conversation and less of the other, while the situation demands otherwise. Thus paying attention to the types of conversation that we are having gives managers an actionable way to approach communication. [4]

The typology turns the everyday and mundane act of conversations into a form of deliberate practice with feedback built into it.

A framework to increase effectiveness

Regarding deliberate practice, David Brooks emphasizes the importance of structuring creative activities. [2]

The more creative the activity is, the more structured the work routine should probably be.

- David Brooks in The Second Mountain

This applies to a large extent to conversations. Speech and conversations are inherently more creative and open-ended and therefore harder to control than written communications.

You can rewrite something before you send but you cannot retract what you have already said. Neither can you control how the other person responds.

Speech is more primitive and conversations have an emergent property. Having a typology helps by giving a structure to something that is fundamentally unstructured and should be kept that way.

The idea is not to prescribe a script for every conversation but that of an underlying framework that makes conversations more effective.

Making it effortful by design

While focussing on a typology in your conversations can initially make the process inherently difficult, this is also the pathway to increased performance and expertise.

Deliberate practice slows the automatizing process. As we learn a skill, the brain stores the new knowledge in the unconscious layers (think of learning to ride a bike).

But the brain is satisfied with good enough. If you want to achieve the level of mastery, you have to learn the skill so deliberately that when the knowledge is stored down below, it is perfect.

Some music academies teach pianists to practice their pieces so slowly that if you can recognize the tune you’re playing too fast. Some golf academies slow down their pupils so it takes ninety seconds to finish a single swing (try it sometime).

- David Brooks in The Second Mountain

Deliberate practice is supposed to be effortful.

Deliberate practice in leadership as a competitive advantage


Perhaps leadership and communication not being seen as actionable can be an advantage for discerning folks.

Cal Newport has talked about how doing deliberate practice in a field that does not have established training routines can be a competitive advantage. [3]

Here’s what struck me as important about deliberate practice: It’s not obvious.

Outside of fields such as chess, music, and professional athletics, which have clear competitive structures and training regimes, few participate in anything that even remotely approximates this style of skill development.

When I first encountered the work of Ericsson and Charness, this insight startled me. It told me that in most types of work—that is, work that doesn’t have a clear training philosophy—most people are stuck.

This generates an exciting implication.

Let’s assume you’re a knowledge worker, which is a field without a clear training philosophy. If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your own life, you have the possibility of blowing past your peers in your value, as you’ll likely be alone in your dedication to systematically getting better.

- Cal Newport in So Good They Can't Ignore You

Leadership and communication happen to be such domains where there are no widely established training routines and are not even being thought of in terms of deliberate practice.

Thus developing your ability in conversations can be a definite competitive advantage. Learning and practicing a typology of conversations is one place to start on this path towards mastery.


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Further Reading

One example of a specific type of conversation is closure conversations. I examine them in this article.

Another blindspot for leaders is delving in content and control while not leveraging the opportunity they have in using context. I explore these ideas in Mastery of Context in Leadership and The Tyranny of Content.

Additionally, most leaders are unaware of the hidden dimensions of language. This is an area ripe with opportunities for improvement.

References and Footnotes

  1. Decoding Greatness by Ron Friedman.
  2. The Second Mountain by David Brooks.
  3. So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport.
  4. The Four Conversations by Jeffrey and Laurie Ford.
Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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