Leadership as Practice: Why Be a Student of Leadership


Lawyers practice law and doctors practice medicine. Artists and athletes also practice their art or their sport. We practice to get good at the things we care about. And if we care about leadership, we should practice that too. If we approach leadership as an intentional, daily practice we may become effective, and perhaps even inspired leaders ourselves. Leadership skills don’t come to us any more naturally than other competencies. They require focused effort.

At some point in our career, most of us have had the good fortune of working with an inspired leader. These leaders are self-aware, humble, compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic and engaging. They also create a feeling of resilience and possibility within an organization. These qualities that make them inspired leaders are behaviors they learn, recognize as important and practice on a regular basis.

Approaching leadership as a practice can help us avoid the mistake of seeing leadership as a license to wield power, rather than the responsibility to offer inspiration. Leadership-practitioners recognize it’s harder work to inspire. The easier, more cynical path is simply to coerce. And we need more practitioners because the number one reason people leave organizations is frustration over poor and ineffective leadership.

Be a student of leadership

I often remind myself of the advice that Zen Buddhist priest, Shunryu Suzuki, offered his students, “You are all perfect and you need a lot of improvement.” Following his guidance, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating, studying and reading about leadership. I’ve also been a careful observer of effective leaders throughout my career. At one point, I began writing and speaking about leadership to share what I’d learned with others.

I like to call myself a student of leadership. If there’s a subject we hope to master, but no amount of time and effort will ever get us to mastery, then we can at least consider ourselves a student of that subject. Thinking of ourselves as students keeps us humble. It implies we need to practice on an ongoing basis.

Build a culture that supports leadership practice

In my current position, we’ve established a specific strategic objective focused on organizational culture. The objective emphasizes the need to create time to look up from what we do, our day-to-day transactions and think about how we do our work. As a team, we identify and promote behaviors that are reflective of transformational leadership. We learn about, discuss, attempt to internalize and continuously practice the behaviors that promote and sustain our desired work culture.

The behaviors we have identified as key to a healthy work culture include a commitment to building trust, assuming positive intent, practicing radical candor, using multiple and constructive communication channels and increasing self-awareness. In order to more consistently exhibit these behaviors, we have to learn about, reflect on and practice them like a concert violinist practices for a performance or a professional athlete prepares for a competition.

Practice what you learn

How do we ensure these leadership behaviors become fully integrated into our organizational work culture? The risk is that such an initiative will seem novel and compelling at first, but then fade and be forgotten. For example, after conferences or trainings, we often feel excited and energized about what we’ve learned. Unfortunately, we just as often return to work and dive back into the grind. What we learned is set aside, gets lost and is never used.

We can counter this risk by first identifying a leadership culture objective and related behaviors that we believe are worth nurturing and practicing. Recognizing that we’ll always have room to learn and improve establishes a foundation of humility and authenticity in our work as leaders. If we commit to learning, internalizing and practicing the behaviors of transformational leadership, we will eventually transform what we learn into a way of being.


This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.

Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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