Leadership Development: Why Talent Does Not Matter

Research shows that innate qualities or talent have no relevance when it comes to high performance. Developing leaders and high performing teams requires a rigorous routine of Deliberate Practice.

K. Anders Ericsson presents in his book "The Cambridge Handbook Of Expertise and Expert Performance" the last 30+ years of research on how people become top performers in their field of expertise. The conclusion: top performers are always made, never born.

On one hand, this is very liberating and should provide corporate leaders and human resources development experts with relieve in the "war for talent": When high performers can be developed, the pressure to identify and hire this scarce and elusive resource is somewhat mitigated. At the same time the focus shifts to accountability within the organization and to the actions that can be taken to continuously develop high performance.

Ericsson's analysis of the research points to the concept of Deliberate Practice. He describes Deliberate Practice as "(...) considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can't do well or even at all." (Ericsson 2007).

In practical terms Deliberate Practice is a cyclical activity to improve the performance of a skill or set of skills - that of an individual or a team.  A single practice cycle consists of 3 phases: preparation, action, review. The actual practice needs to stretch the ability. Practicing what is already mastered does not lead to performance improvement! Well-developed observation and feedback skills are critical during the review phase to make plans for improvement in the next cycle. Another element of Deliberate Practice is that it takes time and hard work: there are no shortcuts to top performance.

This might have consequences for talent management, leadership and organizational development:

  • Leadership development is multi-layered and takes time: self-management, social and cooperative skills are critical to develop as a basis for more sophisticated leadership skills such as charisma.
  • Leadership development never stops: specifically leaders at the top of their performance tend to make more decisions intuitively. Intuition - or "gut-feeling" - is a powerful skill that can be developed and needs to be maintained to be effective. The risk of neglecting Deliberate Practice is that of decreasing the ability to respond appropriately to new challenges in situation that have not been encountered before.


The choice to act and the ultimate accountability lies with the learner - however the organization's leadership and specialists in HR, Organizational Development and Learning are responsible to raise awareness for the challenge and to provide a suitable framework.

If you would like to read more about this topic, here are some reading tips:

K.A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P.J. Feltovich, R.R. Hoffman, "The Cambridge Handbook Of Expertise and Expert Performance", Cambridge University Press 2006 - this 900+ pages comprehensive compilation presents an edited version of many research papers. (To buy the book from Amazon click here.) . If you are interested in the conclusions, better reads are:

K.A. Ericsson, M.J. Pritula, E.T. Cokely, "The Making of an Expert", Harvard Business Review, July 2007 - you can access a copy through Harvard Business Review - or contact us to obtain a licensed copy.

Malcolm Gladwell, "Outliers. The Story of Success", Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Gladwell refers to Ericsson's research and builds on it. It's a great read. (To buy the book from Amazon click here).

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