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Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap in Leadership

June 24, 2020

By Randy Hall


Knowing what to do as a leader sometimes can fall into that category of things we feel like we should do, but really don’t do very consistently. You know, that list of things like eating healthier or exercising more or saving more money, stuff like that.  The difference though is that sometimes with leadership activities, we think knowing is enough.  Or that the goal is just knowing how to lead, not consistently leading. 

Most of the time when I work with leaders I will hear things like, “I never really thought of it like that”, or “that helped me form a new perspective on the way I lead others.”  But sometimes I will also hear things like “Well much of what we talked about is common senses”, or “I have heard a lot of these things before.”

What we know is interesting but, although it’s been said that knowledge is power, knowledge is actually useless until we apply it. Leadership should not be an intellectual pursuit.  It’s something that we have to learn and practice and fail at and learn more about and slowly improve at until we actually get different results from it.  Our knowledge of how to do it well is only the very beginning of doing it well.

We seem to know that about some things; I’m pretty sure I can’t hit an 80 mph curveball without a lot of practice, but not always about leadership.  We tend to think of it more as one of those things that as long as we know how to do it, that in itself is enough. Most people come to believe they can coach others without ever having really practiced coaching others.  That is not to say that they haven’t told things to people who might report to them, but that’s like just swinging at curveballs, it’s not really practice.  I am not working through a systematic process or following a specific organized plan for HOW I practice, I am just going through the motions of doing it badly. Lot’s of managers will tell you they have a fully engaged team without ever having measured the team’s level of engagement and most managers will tell you that their team is completely honest with them, because they told them to be honest. 

The knowing-doing gap in leadership is just as real as it is in other areas of our world.  Knowing something creates possibilities but without focused and organized action, they remain possibilities.  And while possibilities are important, eventually we want them to turn into actualities if we are going to achieve progress.

Take one thing you know you want to do differently or more consistently as a leader and then begin to organize your steps for being great at it, practice each step diligently, and then observe and measure your results as you go. The only way we turn knowledge into performance is through focused repetition of the steps we know.

The reason we incorporate exercises and activities into much of our leadership work is so people get a chance to practice.  When people tell me they know how to coach, I say “that’s fantastic, walk me through your steps and your practice regimen for consistently getting better.”  Sometimes what I find was they knew intellectually what good coaching might look like, but were not yet actually good at coaching. Rarely can someone not describe good leadership, but also rarely, are they executing good leadership on a regular basis.

According to research done by INC Magazine, 75% of employees report their boss is the worst and most stressful part of their job, and 65% of employees say they would take a new boss over a pay raise. Oh, and according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, employees who have managers they didn’t like were 60% more likely to have a heart attack.  Bad leadership might really be killing us.  I would bet though, based on tens of thousands of interactions with managers and leaders in workshops and coaching conversations, that most of these bosses could answer the question “what does good leadership look like” relatively well. 

Knowing about the processes, skills, routines, activities and approaches that make someone a solid leader is important, and we can’t begin any journey without some clarity around the destination. But when we focus on the knowing only, we still fail to make any real progress on that journey.  We must then build the habits and patterns of daily activity that actually make us a good leader, not just someone who can describe good leadership. 

Pick one thing, just one thing that you want to practice that would help you lead others more effectively.  It might be one of the following: asking better questions, scheduling more consistent one on one time, reviewing the teams strengths on a regular basis, asking for more ideas from your team, spending some time each morning writing down your leadership goals for the day, learning more about the mindset of your best performers, working with someone who is struggling to identify their definition of success, helping an individual develop a habit that will make them more successful, scheduling listening time with your team to learn about their breakthroughs and improvements, taking a few moments to get yourself in the right mindset to lead others each morning, or a hundred other things.  But let’s move away from leadership being an intellectual, lofty, esoteric thing, and make it more of a sport or endeavor that we actually DO.   

Yes, we have to think about leadership, learn about leadership and explore leadership as a concept as a start at getting better at it.  But in the very next instant, we need to practice it or we simply just have some thoughts about some things, and that alone serves no one, even if it makes us feel better that we understand something at a deeper level. 

We built the Leadership Gym as a way to go to work on ourselves as leaders every day.  A place where we could actually cause improvement, not just contemplate it. If you want to actually work on your leadership ability.  We are here for you and we genuinely want to help with that.

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