Why do books about talent ignore management?

outliersThere is a big gap in the recent literature about developing talent through conscious practice: minimal attention on leadership or managerial skills. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers describes how the Beatles and Bill Gates became extraordinary at their technical crafts by practicing repeatedly over time. The book popularized the 10,000 hour rule named by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Similarly, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated reveal the rules of deep practice and deliberate practice, respectively, mostly through the examples of athletes, musicians, and teachers. On an individual level, they talk about breaking skills into chunks, practicing the chunks slowly, and correcting mistakes along the way. On an organizational or cultural level, they talk about apprenticing young people to masters and igniting talent hotbeds that inspire them to commit to long-term deliberate practices.

This is exciting and powerful stuff. Unfortunately, none of these books talk in depth about how to apply deliberate talent practice to management or leadership. OK, I lied: the Epilogue to The Talent Code contains two pages on business, specifically Toyota’s use of kaizen events to continuously improve processes and create high quality products. But, other than this, there is very little about the skills of management. Why the gap?

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Let me offer several possible explanations:

  1. Talent researchers aren’t interested in management. Most psychologists, neuroscientists, and journalists (even business journalists) don’t have managerial experience, nor have they spent much time in their careers watching managers in action. In contrast, all have been through school and most have played sports or a musical instrument. They study what they know.
  2. Management researchers generally don’t focus on individual practices. There are thousands of books written about the attributes of great leaders and hundreds that tell stories to illustrate these concepts. But few focus in an actionable way on deliberate managerial practices—the actions that managers repeat over and over again with the intention of improving performance and by getting feedback from skilled observers. This is partly because…
  3. Deliberate managerial practices are difficult to study. If you want to learn how people get good at soccer or the violin, you can go to the hotbeds of talent development and watch what happens. The teachers and heads of schools are often willing to let you watch, particularly if you’re going to write a best-selling book. And sometimes you don’t even need their permission. For example, you can learn how Brazilian kids get great at soccer by watching them play Futsall, a mini-version of soccer that involves a small heavy ball, a tiny field, and non-stop action. No permission required. But management is very different. It happens inside of organizations: in one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports, in team meetings, in Board rooms, and on construction sites, factory floors, and wet labs. These places are not accustomed to having visitors. And even if they did…
  4. Management researchers may not know what to observe. Managers live in the world of language—speaking, listening, and facial and body expressions. If you want to understand what they are practicing, you have to understand the distinctions—the vocabularies—within each of these domains and have the observational skills to know what you are seeing. For example, if you’re watching a sales team discuss how to talk with their biggest customer about a delivery delay, what do you look for? What is the equivalent in a team conversation of the various dribbling moves of a soccer player or the pattern-recognition of a chess master? If you were videotaping the scene, what would you capture on film that could tell you whether the team was having this conversation at a mediocre, good, or great level? If you cannot answer this question, it’s hard to tell a story about what excellence looks like, much less propose ways to get there. Fortunately, there is a robust and detailed grammar of how we bring about action through language. It’s the terrain of speech acts or promise-based management. On a micro level, you can look at the power of declarations made in the meeting, the ability of the team to ground their assessments, the reliability of promises, and the clarity of requests. These are all highly specific and highly actionable. Unfortunately, this grammar remains relatively unknown in the world of management writing outside of the students of Fernando Flores, who first translated these concepts for organizational settings. Similarly, if you wanted to describe how the physical presence and body language of the team contributed or detracted from their success, you could do so by tapping into the grammar of somatic intelligence, as described by Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford, or Barbara and Alan Pease, or the the anatomy of microscopic facial expressions, as detailed by Paul Ekman. However, these distinctions, too, remain mostly outside of mainstream management writing, which generally treat managers as disembodied creatures (i.e. brains with laptops and smart phones).
  5. Few organizations offer deliberate management practices. Ultimately, it’s difficult to study something that isn’t happening. Most organizations don’t consciously challenge managers to practice managing either on the job or in formal training. The closest they come to this is selecting on-the-job experiences that are likely to teach managers what they need to learn, but only a few select talent machines do this. (See, for example, my friend Jeannie Coyle’s book about “exceptional development managers.”) And even these talent machines rarely show managers how to break down into component parts the skills that these experiences can teach—or give them regular feedback and reflection opportunities so they can correct their mistakes.

This is the bad news. What’s the good news? There is an extraordinary business opportunity for organizations that takes these points seriously and decide to embed the rules of deep practice into their management development. The opportunity it to develop managers faster and better than anyone else. This will require thinking in radically new ways about management development, and many organizations won’t be up for taking such a risk. But those who do may find that the risk of developing managers the way we develop athletes and musicians is far less than the risk of maintaining the status quo.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Brian Branagan

    I was thinking the same thing the other day while doing kata with my sensei. I”ve been studying Jodo for three years and I’m always learning something new. Sometimes my sensei points out a new distinction and other times I try something new which improves that move.

    Here’s a seed for another conversation/blog post: What would a management kata look like that would develop that sense of deliberate practice you mention. In martial arts, this is known as zanshin which captures the sense of high engagement and high-performance.

    • Brian, thanks for your comment. Your seed for another blog post is a good one, and I look forward to further conversation on that topic.