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There’s an old story about a tourist who asks a New Yorker how to get to the storied concert venue Carnegie Hall and is told, “Practice, practice, practice.” Obviously, this is good advice if you want to become a world-class performer — but it’s also good advice if you want to become a top-notch leader.
Over the past year we have been writing the HBR Leader’s Handbook — a primer for aspiring leaders who want to take their careers to the next level. As part of our research for the book, we interviewed over 40 successful leaders of large corporations, startups, and non-profits to get their views about what it takes to become a leader. We also explored several decades of research on that subject published in HBR; and we reflected on our own experience in the area of leadership development.
Our research and experience have shown us that the best way to develop proficiency in leadership is not just through reading books and going to training courses, but even more through real experience and continual practice.
Take the case of Dominic Barton, who served as the Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company from 2009-2018. In an interview with us, reflecting back on his own development as a leader, he didn’t cite education programs or books he had read, but rather described several “learn-by-doing” experiences that would shape his successful career.
As the office leader of McKinsey Korea, for example, he realized he had “a small playground to… try new stuff” — and against all advice of local colleagues to be cautious and follow cultural norms, started writing a provocative newspaper column that challenged traditional ways of working among local businesses as their markets continued to globalize. “I took a risk, and it helped put us on the map, as never before.” His tenure in Korea also taught him that he was better at some things than others: “My performance evaluator used to beat me up regularly during those days, because I was better at opening up new initiatives than bringing them to completion. When I later became head of McKinsey Asia, he helped me see that I had to hire a solid COO to work with me—which substantially increased my leadership effectiveness in that bigger role.”
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Ron Ashkenas is a coauthor of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and a Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting. His previous books include The Boundaryless Organization, The GE Work-Out, and Simply Effective.
Brook Manville is a coauthor of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and Principal of Brook Manville LLC, a consultancy in strategy, organization and leadership development. His previous Harvard Business Review Press books are Judgment Calls and A Company of Citizens. He also blogs about leadership at Forbes.com.