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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

REVIEWED: Peak (Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool)

Peak, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. First Mariner Books, 2017.

If there is only one book you read about the learning process, it should be Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. The way that authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool approach learning provides a comprehensive and effective structure to the learning process, one that will serve a lifetime of self-improvement.

There are several critical aspects of Peak that compliment the definition of leadership. Understanding these concepts from the different angle presented in the book allows us as leaders to triangulate our efforts: what works for someone developing into a violin maestro or a golf champion, skills that are fundamentally different than leadership, provides a different perspective that clarifies how we perform learning as leaders.

First, Ericsson and Pool emphasize the importance of a mental model for any skill or performance. This aligns with the definition of leadership – a universal model – and with our leadership practice – an individual and situational model. With these two tools, we have a way to understand how individual behaviors or actions connect to the larger task of leadership, and how these behaviors can be adjusted to produce excellence. We break the larger skills up into smaller chunks, which we improve through repeated cycles of the learning process until the skills become accessible and even preferential.

The concept of deliberate practice is similarly critical. It is not enough to lead for years; rather, we must constantly identify areas of improvement (and strength) and change them in ways that produce better results. If we simply continue to perform without this self-directed improvement, our skills may actually atrophy.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Peak is how we need to use the learning process within the context of leadership. One of the most difficult aspects of building a leadership practice is identifying areas to improve our performance. Leadership, unlike say playing a violin or running a foot race, lacks clear indicators of excellence. Not only is it hard to see our own behavior, it is often hard to find other leaders who are capable of giving us honest and accurate feedback. This feedback requires both familiarity with our work and a practice that is significantly more developed than ours (similar to the master teachers that Ericsson and Pool discuss in Peak). These qualifications occur infrequently in our leadership-lacking world, unfortunately.

Fortunately, the three places to learn and the markers of learning provide both models of excellence and specific behaviors we can improve.

The basic function of the learning markers is to help us identify areas where our behavior can be improved. When we feel discomfort, the markers tell us that we are not performing at a level of excellence and therefore need to determine what a high-performer looks like and then identify specific behaviors that we can address through deliberate practice. As we learn to recognize the markers, this process should become almost second nature.

The three places to learn – structured learning, mentoring, and trial and error – allow us to not only find specific behaviors, but to see examples of excellence in leadership. By seeking out those who are excellent and observing their behaviors and the outcomes, we can see how our performance might be improved. This is particularly useful when we create mentoring relationships, where we can discuss the internal thought processes of the mentor. This allows us insight into the mental model that the person used to select and perform the behaviors that interest us. Because we have already established a model for an excellent outcome, we apply similar questions to our unique situation and identify behaviors we will perform.

Because leadership is both situational and difficult to measure, we must be highly deliberate in our practice. Understanding how deliberate practice appears in the more concrete, measurable tasks discussed throughout Peak gives us a foundation upon which to analyze and understand our own efforts upon the three functions of leadership, and in particular the process of learning. The learning markers and the three places to learn are the tools we need to apply this foundation to our practice of leadership.

If you haven’t read – and reread – Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, do so now. It will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

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