Deliberate and intentional practice

I recently facilitated a leadership workshop for a room full of senior leaders and was asked: “How do we keep the momentum going beyond today and put the learnings into action?

It’s the right question, because how many workshops have you sat in and nodded along enthusiastically, excited that you’re going to be a different leader tomorrow, only to get back to your desk the next day and continue to do what you’ve always done and be surprised that nothing changed? Hundreds? Me too.

The answer to the question is the title of this blog post. Deliberate and intentional practice. It’s simple but not easy. Simple because we’ve done it hundreds of times in other contexts, and not easy because it requires effort, time and permission.

Leadership is a skill and a choice. And like any skill, it’s difficult to get better at it unless we deliberately and intentionally make time to practice, experiment, make mistakes and learn.

So, the noodle to ponder is: how will you deliberately and intentionally practice being a leader this week?

Leadership quests

A senior leader recently described navigating his organisation as a quest. He talked about setting off on a journey with a specific goal or task, and along the way experiencing all sorts of unexpected twists, turns, discoveries and rare Pokemon to capture*.

Perhaps this rings true to you?

You think you need to meet with three people to get their input, and then you discover there are four other stakeholders, so you wrangle everyone’s calendar and manage to meet with them before they introduce you to two more. One of them is on leave for a week, so you set up some time for when they’re back and in the meantime fill out a template you discovered in your travels. Once you’ve finally met with the 9th person you discover the template is obsolete and there’s already another process that someone set up to eliminate the need to meet with so many people, so you file it away for next time and forge ahead, trying to make sense of the 9 different pieces of feedback you received.

This kind of quest sounds a lot like leadership in 2023. Because when it comes to being a leader there is no perfect map. No one ‘right’ way to lead or perfect process to follow. Instead, leaders are dropped into situations every single day and forced to figure it out. We’re constantly on quests, without knowing what might happen.

So without a map, what do we do?

Well, even in 2023 I believe there’s still room to use a compass as a metaphor. That’s right, I’m doing it. A good old-fashioned compass. Only, instead of North, East, South and West, we get to choose skills, behaviours and postures that will help us navigate our quest. Ones that are human and transferrable, no matter the situation we find ourselves in.

I’ve argued Humility, Empathy and Curiosity are some such skills, though, of course, there are others. Kindness, Compassion and Decisiveness, for example.

The exact skills matter less than the fact you get to decide, with intention: How will you show up on this quest? What real, human skills will you call on?

*I made that last bit up as someone who grew up watching Pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all.

Rules worth following

Growing up, every time my family drove past the Forrest General Store we stopped for ice cream. This happened roughly 3-4 times a year.

It was a tradition and a rule. One that was undisputed and didn’t require negotiation every time we made the trip.

This echoes what the brilliant Shane Parrish encourages us to do. That is, to create automatic rules around things that help us be the best version of ourselves. And while you might raise an eyebrow that ice cream helped us be the best version of ourselves (how dare you) it’s the not-up-for-negotiation part of this mental model that holds so much importance.

In Parrish’s own words: “automatic rules turn your desired behavior into your default behaviour“.

And so, the question: What are the desired behaviors you are seeking to cultivate? And how might you create rules around those to enable you to cultivate them?

Here are 14 rules I just made up to get you going:

  1. No meeting Mondays
  2. Only check email three times per day
  3. Eat lunch outside
  4. Work out every day
  5. No phone’s in the bedroom
  6. Eat 800 grams of fruit and vegetables per day
  7. Send 1 reach out every day
  8. Walk to work
  9. Always take the stairs
  10. No alcohol during the week
  11. No slides in meetings
  12. Go into the office 3 days per week
  13. Turn your camera on in video calls
  14. Count to three the next time you ask someone a question

PS. Jen Waldman and I also talked about this on our podcast.

Feeling heard

A friend of mine recently lamented how she unsuccessfully went in to bat for a team member to get a much-deserved pay rise.

“I feel like I let him down, and I’m scared he’ll now leave the team,” she told me.

I reminded her that she did what most leaders don’t: she listened to his concerns and intentionally acted on them. ie she acted in service of him. 

It sounds obnoxiously simple, so much so that I questioned whether this is even worth sharing, but this idea is surprisingly rare. While some decisions and outcomes might be outside your control, making people feel seen and heard is within your control.

Oftentimes people want to feel genuinely seen, heard and understood more than they want a decision changed. 

Direction is overrated*

When someone asks you for guidance or direction, resist giving it to them immediately.

Instead, try responding:

“I’m happy to share some thoughts, but first I’m curious what you think?”

It’s very likely the direction asker already has ideas about how to move forward, they just need help (and permission) to share them with you.

As a leader, you can give this to them.

*Unless you’re lost in a foreign country with absolutely no idea how to get home and your Google Maps isn’t working. In this case, directions are great.

What conditions are you creating?

Amy Edmondson, who popularised the notion of ‘psychological safety’, points out that the best performing teams fail more, not less, than poorly performing teams.

This is not because they actually fail more, but because members of the team feel comfortable reporting/sharing when they’ve made a mistake.

That is to say: the best teams have leaders who create the conditions where admitting to and discussing mistakes is okay.

‘Tis the kind of counterintuitive insight that once you see, you cannot unsee. Like the time I discovered that brushing your teeth in the shower saves at least 120 seconds in the morning (you’re welcome).

All that to say, as a leader in your field what conditions are you creating for those around you?

Dadding and leadership

I’ve had the last 7 weeks off learning to be a dad.

Naturally, this has resulted in a lot of thinking, pondering and questioning, usually at 3am as I bounce up and down at the end of the bed ‘shhhhing’ and gently patting our newborn son back to sleep.

As I emerge from this bubble (in my vomit stained T-shirt and aching right shoulder) it dawns on me that showing up for a newborn requires you to practice and embody the three most important skills of a modern leader: humility, empathy and curiosity.

I am constantly humbled in service of this little squishy human and reminded that I have no idea what I’m doing (and that’s okay). I am seeking to understand and empathise with what might be going on for this tiny creature so that I can best serve him. I am curious every day and trying to figure out what might be the best way to support him and my wife.

It is these same three skills that sit at the heart of the best leaders.

ie: Great leaders have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know everything, and seek to surround themselves with people and ideas that can help them, they empathise with their people and show up in service to them and they are curious and coach like in the way that they help develop themselves and those around them.

The beauty of these skills is they are choices that we get to make every single day. With that in mind, how might you show up with a little more HEC today?

How are we handling?

In New York City there is a recurring gathering between some of the best speech pathologists, laryngologists, and voice teachers in the world.

Each gathering, any number of them will stand up and share with the group a situation where they feel stuck.

For example: “This is a situation I found myself in recently. These are the interventions I’ve tried with the client so far. Nothing is working. I feel stuck. What am I missing?”

Then, the rest of the group shares ideas, questions and insights about the situation from their own perspective.

“Have you thought about this…?”

“What would it look like to try…?”

“This reminds me of another situation, here’s what we did…”

In doing so they cultivate and leverage the collective intelligence of the group to help make them all better and deliver better outcomes for their clients as a result.

In the altMBA we called this #howarewehandling, a dedicated Slack channel where coaches from around the world could share a situation they had that could benefit from other perspectives. After posting in this channel any one coach might get 3, 4, 5 or even 6 others from all corners of the globe chiming in with questions, feedback and insights.

This channel was magic and made us all better, even those who caught up and read the channel after the fact.

I recently shared this with some senior Executives recently and their eyes lit up “WE NEED A CHANNEL LIKE THAT” and off they went and created one. Jen Waldman and I also spoke about it in a recent podcast, and have since been inundated with messages of people wanting to create their own version.

So now, it’s your turn. How might you create a space as generous, insightful and, yes, magical as these?

Instead of ‘difficult’ conversations

What if we framed them as ‘courageous’, ‘necessary’, or ‘important’ conversations? Or how about ‘crunchy’, ‘noodly’, or ‘rumbly’ conversations? Maybe even ‘curious’, ‘constructive’, or ’empathetic’ conversations?

Might that change how we feel about them? Or how we show up and approach them?

The way we frame things influences the way we feel about them and the story we tell ourselves about them.

So if a particular framing isn’t working for us, we have permission to consider another.

The greatest aerial skier of all time

Jacqui Cooper competed in 139 World Cup Events, 9 World Championships and a ridiculous 5 Winter Olympic teams. She holds 5 world titles, 39 World Cup medals, 25 World Cup wins and 3 major World Championship medals.

This makes her the greatest aerial skier of all time.

So what might we mere mortals learn from such a back-flipping, pike-twisting legend?

Well, across every single jump in her 20-year career, Cooper stuck the landing just 20% of the time. TWENTY PERCENT.

Put another way: 80% of the time the greatest aerial skier of all time didn’t get the outcome she was seeking.

80% of the time she tried something and it didn’t work out.

80% of the time she found learning in something hard and painful, and managed to keep moving.

I’m finding this to be a noodly backdrop for all the stories we tell ourselves about perfectionism, making mistakes and the hairy, smelly and misunderstood notion of ‘failure’.

My new favourite acronym for all leaders

Because you don’t already have enough acronyms in your life, amiright?

This badboy is a good one though, I promise.

It’s simply, WAIT and it stands for Why Am I Talking?

Just seeing this glorious acronym on a page provokes us to be more intentional with when and how we communicate, the byproduct of which is we’re likely to do more listening. It gives other people in the room a chance to contribute and feel heard and works especially well in partnership with EARS.

To hear more check out this short 20min podcast episode.


A few months ago I was chatting with my friend Stacey about different work styles, and she asked me a question I think all leaders should ponder: “Why do you still choose to commute to a shared office when you can work from home?”

I replied: “I come here for what I can’t get at home: banter and human connection.”

And I meant it.

I no longer go to an office expecting to do deep, focused work without distraction because I can do that better at home. I also don’t go to an office to sit on video calls from 8 am to 5 pm because I can do that more comfortably at home.

Instead, I go to an office for conversation, human connection and, yes, banter. I go there to share ideas, think creatively and laugh. Ultimately I go to the office because it makes me a better, more social person. Plus it’s fun to wear proper pants every now and then.

All this has me wondering: where might you make space for banter?

What Humpty Dumpty can teach us about storytelling

A few weeks ago I sat through a lengthy and confusing presentation in a dimly lit conference room struggling to find meaning or purpose in the story being shared. The whole experience reminded me of our good friend Humpty Dumpty and the world’s simplest three act structure to telling better stories:

Act 1: Set the Stage and Spark Curiosity “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.” Straight up you’ve got me intrigued. Why on earth is he up there? What’s he doing? What’s he thinking? What’s going to happen next?

A great story captivates the audience’s attention from the outset, sparking their curiosity and setting the stage for the journey ahead.

Act 2: Build Tension and Engage Empathy: “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.” Oh, HELL NO Humpty. Is he going to be okay? Why wasn’t there a railing for him to hold onto? I’m sure he’ll be fine, this is a nursery rhyme after all, and we love a happy ending.

A compelling story presents a challenge or conflict that captures the audience’s interest and empathy.

Act 3: Deliver a Climax and Resolve the Tension: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Wait, what?! You mean even the entire King’s army couldn’t help poor old Humpty? What happened to happy endings? Ergh, this story is brutal, I need a drink.

A memorable story concludes with a powerful climax addressing the tension that was built in Act 2. It provides closure and resolution, even if it’s not a happy ending, as in the case of old Hump.

All compelling stories have these three acts in common. So next time you share a story or are giving a presentation consider how you might ‘do a humpty’ and tell it in as few words as possible using this simple three act structure.

Two questions to ask your team

A little Sunday challenge for all you leaders out there working in and/or leading a team.

Take 30min out of your next team meeting and have everyone respond to these two questions:

  1. What’s your superpower?
  2. Where are you stuck right now?

That’s it.

It doesn’t require you to solve anything, provide an update or put together a slide deck (please, don’t put together another slide deck). Instead, it requires you to lean into the real, human skills of humility, vulnerability, empathy, and curiosity, and to do so in service of connection.

My new favourite leadership metaphor from Barack Obama

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Barack Obama speak in Melbourne. How’s that for a fun sentence?

For 90min he sat back on a lounge chair riffing, telling stories and sharing wisdom to the 10,000 of us who managed to snaffle a ticket.

Around an hour in he casually mentioned, what is my new favourite leadership metaphor. I’m almost certainly paraphrasing, but here’s how I remember it:

“Leadership is like a relay… you get given the baton having had no control over what’s happened before you, and so all you can do is focus on what’s in front of you. All you can focus on is taking the baton you’ve been given and running your own leg of the race, before passing it on again.”


This strikes me as brilliant for many reasons. At its core I think it speaks to focusing on what we can control as leaders (and not getting stuck on what came before us or what is outside our control), and doing so in a way that we are proud of regardless of all the other runners beside us.

It’s a metaphor I plan on noodling on for weeks and months to come as I consider what metaphorical races I have coming up and how I want to receive the baton and take it forward.