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While teaching leadership classes over the past several years, I often wonder how long it would take my students to master the Art of Leadership. Is it one or two classes; experiences in the field as a leader; higher education at the Bachelors or Masters level; boots on the ground or a combination of all aforementioned?

Then I wonder about the amount of time it takes to become proficient at our leadership skill set.

During our introduction into the fire service, we are provided many hours of training, either classroom or on the training ground. The average fire academy is 10 weeks long, 40 hours a week (with additional study time) for about 400 hours of time learning the basics of our profession. Then there is the probationary period averaging about one year long and the general work year is 2,080 hours per year, so at the end of this period we have a basic trained firefighter with 2,480 hours of training, skills and experience. Then as our basic trained firefighters move up the ladder to 1st class firefighters (in my department it begins as a probationary firefighter then to 4th class, 3rd class, 2nd class then 1st class) providing an avenue to move up the ranks as a Lieutenant, Captain and on up the chain of command.

Doing the math, each of the advancements are a year in the making and barring vacations, sick time or other time off, at the end of those first five years as a firefighter we reach what some call the time of expertise of 10,800 hours of experience and training.

AH-HA –the 10,000 hour mark that Malcom Gladwell states is the time it takes to achieve a mastery in the field. In his book, Outliers, The Story of Success, the author claims this time frame is what it takes to master a skill set or proficiency in a particular field of study. If this is true, how do we leverage that time concept into improving the management and leadership to a greater level in our profession?

Gladwell uses several popular examples of highly successful individuals from Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft) to the Beatles. In each example, the individual(s) spent nearly a lifetime perfecting their skills and abilities. Bill Gates and Paul Allen started programming in the late 60’s obtaining time on a workstation to develop and perfect computer code before they started Microsoft in 1978 with several other talented individuals. The Beatles were playing in underground bars in the 1960’s for many years before “discovery.” They were playing as a group and writing music for hours at a time forcing improvement in their music. The success is attributed to the extraordinary playing time together. As written in Outliers, they played in over 1,200 concerts together before they came upon the international music scene. Many musicians have not played that many times in their entire career in their lifetimes.

Another example are German violin players studied by psychologists in the 1990’s while as children, teens and as adults related to their practice habits and time actually learning and playing. Many of those studied indicated they started about the age of 5 and as they aged, their practice times varied until the very best or elite players were over the 10,000 hour mark and the better than average was at the 4000 hour mark. The theory here is practice provides improvement.

What if natural talent plays an important role as the saying goes “Leaders are born and not made.”

In the study of the violin players, no “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, they would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

So, what does that say for our fire service leaders? Certainly at the age of 5, we did not have a clue what we were going to do with our lives and it would be very difficult to start the training as a fire service leader at that age. However, as a child you were probably pushed to play some type of musical instrument with the parents admonishing that practice makes perfect. Thinking back upon that time in life, they were trying to get you into a habit of practicing to improve your skill on the squeaky clarinet instead of playing with your friends or other distracting activity. They were in fact training you to focus on a skill set to improve performance. Remember your time playing sports where some players were average and some were fantastic; or in the classroom where some students excelled and others just got by. Did you ask them how they got so good? I asked that question and most of the response is that I practice after practice with their parents or other students or I take extra classes or have a tutor to improve my classroom skills.

Is this happening to you at work?  Does practice make perfect? I believe that it does and the amount of time you take to thoroughly study a subject such as management or leadership will pay off when you are promoted to a higher rank in your organization. Successful leaders generally don’t work harder than everybody else: at some point they fall into a place with practice to the point where they want to do little else. How many of those leaders do you know?

The high performing software developer is the programmer who spends all day pounding code at work, and after leaving work writes open source software on her own time; the elite football player is the guy who spends all day on the practice field with his teammates, and after practice he goes home to watch game films; the highly performing physician listens to medical podcasts in the car during a long commute and the highly successful fire officer manager and leader can and should emulate this behavior. We must love with what we do and at some point it no longer feels like work.

So the question remains, have we already logged in our 10,000 hours of practice and what is it that we really do well? If your department or shift does better than others, what do you attribute to that success? Practice plays a major role in success.

Gladwell and his concepts are not original as the first to notice the 10,000-hours concept can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance highlighting the work of the psychologists in Berlin, studying the practice habits of violin students in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Ericsson concluded that "many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years". The principle in all writings holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field defined as, “practicing in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible.”

Now for the buzz-kill, in a July 3, 2014 article written by Drake Baer in Business Insider indicates a study conducted at Princeton (year unknown) disputes the 10,000 hour rule indicating that deliberate practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains including: games, practice made for a 26% difference; music, it was a 21% difference; sports, an 18% difference; education, a 4% difference and sadly in professions, just a 1% difference

The best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johanssons book, the Click Moment, Seizing Opportunities in an Unpredictable World  argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures such as tennis, chess, and classical music. The theory is, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. But in less stable fields, like the fire service, entrepreneurship and music, rules can go out the window

Regardless of the theories out there, there is no doubt that skill proficiency takes time and energy to be the best manager and leader in our profession. My recommendation based in my experience, education and teaching is the time you take perfecting your skills will make you a better leader. Take the time to read, observe other leaders for their skill set, learning from the good and bad, practice your skill set, make mistakes (it helps the learning process), teach your skill set to other fire service leaders and most of all take every opportunity to learn all you can about your abilities as a fire service leader and manager.


Outliers – The Story of Success. Malcom Gladwell. Little Brown Company 2008

Raymond T. Hightower. President of Wisdom Group

Anders Ericsson, Professor at the University of Colorado. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. 1993

The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World by Frans Johansson: ISBN: 8601423318509. 2012


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Comment by John K. Murphy on May 22, 2017 at 2:36pm

Best article ever

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