My 14-year-old grandson bounded into our home a few weeks ago, excited to show me that he had learned the opening chords of the Southern rock standard Sweet Home Alabama. (Such rites-of-passage are a big deal for any fledging guitarist because those opening riffs are de rigueur to show you have rock chops — Stairway to Heaven, Desperado, Layla, Start Me Up…make your own list).
Proudly, he nailed the chords. Duly impressed while also inspired by his newfound passion for classic rock, I volunteered to show him some of the additional licks that went with those chords. Except when I grabbed another guitar and tried to play it, well, let’s just say that Lynyrd Skynyrd will duct tape over the extra input jack on their amp if I ever show up with my guitar at one of their rehearsals.
The reason, simply enough, is that I had not practiced it in a very long time. Shoulder and arm surgeries and some other pursuits had my guitars languishing in their cases for longer than I realized.
How often do we truly practice not just the skills, but the attitudes, the thinking we might actually need up on the stage of our lives? It’s tempting to believe we can get better at it amid the work itself, but what about stepping away and intentionally building our chops? More broadly, can you — should you — actually practice leadership?
Just being “in leadership” does not mean one is always buffed to actually exercise the needed skills of leadership in the moment. In fact, to wait to expand the breadth of leadership acumen until the screws are turned down tight can be perilous. To hone any skill, it is always best to retreat from the game itself and test ourselves in conditions that model our future reality, do the reps, and have someone — a coach, perhaps — guide and measure our progress.
I’ve despised practice early earlier in life, but it is the only path to mastery. Practice can feel so unrewarding at the time, perhaps because the goal and even the process feels so distant from the sense of accomplishment we experience when we actually are doing the real work. What is perfected in practice is not just the skill itself but the discipline of learning, being a student of ourselves, discovering our gaps, exploring our potential.
A fellow years ago told me that he wanted to learn patience. He asked me if there some was quick and easy method or model that might help. I told him I was not aware of one, but instead suggested he go to the grocery store, fill up his cart, and then stand in the longest line he could find at the checkout.
“Why would I do that?” he sputtered.
“Well,” I shrugged, ‘you said you wanted to learn patience.”