What is the key to becoming an exceptional leader? The answer, many assume, is experience. But is it really?
After famously studying top performers across a wide range of fields, from chess players to professional memory champions, the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson found that experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
To be sure, experience is necessary. Ericsson famously points out that top violinists, for example, clock an average of 10,000 hours before achieving mastery. But it’s not just quantity of experience that matters. It’s also quality.
Ericcson’s research suggests top performers engage in a particularly rigorous form of practice he calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice isn't just rote repetition, but an effortful process of trial and error. Deliberate practitioners pay close attention to their mistakes, and then continually, painstakingly adjust their performance to correct for those mistakes. Not particularly enjoyable, but enormously effective.
So if deliberate practice is the path to excellence in chess and memorization, it’s likely the path in another cognitively demanding domain, namely, leadership.
But if leaders want to practice deliberately there is one thing they need but often don’t get enough of: feedback. Without feedback, leaders can’t know what errors they’ve made. And if leaders can’t know what errors they’ve made, they can’t make corrections. Put another way, if deliberate practice is the steam engine that gets us up the hill, feedback is the coal that we must continually shovel into the furnace. So the question that leaders hungry to be world-class should be asking themselves is how do I ensure I get enough high-quality feedback?
First, of course, leaders should avoid the one quality that ensures they won’t get enough feedback: close-mindedness. When a leader doesn’t want feedback (to protect her ego) or feels she doesn’t need it (because she assumes she’s good enough already) she guarantees she won’t get it.
Fortunately, most reasonable leaders, understanding the dangers of close-mindedness, strive to be open-minded instead. They remind themselves to welcome criticism. To consider it as objectively as they can, whenever it comes their way.
But while better than close-mindedness, open-mindedness, to the surprise and frustration of many, doesn't always lead to enough high-quality feedback either.
The reason? People are reluctant to give feedback. They either don't want to hurt your feelings or fear the potential blowback. Not to mention, developing and communicating feedback takes time and effort, and people, nowadays, have few hours to spare. Open-mindedness, as well-intentioned as it may be, is simply not a strong enough stance to overcome this reluctance.
And, frankly, the presumption that it is has a whiff of entitlement to it. As if, by simply keeping our door open, enthusiastic visitors will form a line outside, waiting to come in and deliver us honest critiques. As if the world owed us feedback.
It doesn't. Feedback is an incredibly valuable commodity, a gift. Top leaders recognize it as such, and consequently, don’t settle for being open-minded. Instead, they are what professor of psychology Jonathan Baron calls actively open-minded. Instead of sitting back and waiting for feedback to come to them, they go out into the world and aggressively seek it out themselves. They persistently encourage, and often obligate the people around them to point out where they’ve gone wrong.
Business consultants Zenger and Folkman recently conducted a study of 51,896 leaders that shows just that. They found a correlation between feedback seeking behavior and performance. "Leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness."
Granted, being actively open-minded can be difficult. We all have a need to maintain a positive view of ourselves, and negative feedback threatens that view. But the benefits for leaders willing to lean into the discomfort are worth it.
So what can leaders do to be more actively open-minded? First, adopt the 5x rule. Just as salespeople understand that it often takes multiple asks to get the close, so too should leaders. Ask someone at least five times before you even begin to expect them to overcome their reluctance and offer up feedback.
Second, surround yourself with opinionated people and give them full permission to criticize you, even without you asking. Realize, though, that even the most contentious insiders may unknowingly conform to your way thinking. So recruit outsiders too. Find people outside your bubble who think differently from you and aren’t afraid to tell you.
When they do, thank them. Remind them, and yourself, that critical feedback, as difficult as it may be to hear, is a true gift. It might not feel like it at the time, but nonetheless, it’s the key to becoming an exceptional leader.
Interested in putting these ideas into action? This 20-minute recorded webinar, led by Al Pittampalli, will show you the specific habits that actively open-minded leaders adopt.
This article originally appeared at alpitt.com.