In every act observe the things which come first, and those which follow it... A man wishes to conquer at the Olympic games, I also wish indeed, for it is a fine thing. But observe both the things which come first, and the things which follow... You must do everything according to rule, eat according to strict orders, abstain from delicacies, exercise yourself as you are bid at appointed times, in heat, in cold, you must not drink cold water, nor wine as you choose... And sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated. When you have considered all this, if you still choose, go to the contest.
If you do not, you will behave like children, who at one time play at wrestlers, another time as flute players, again as gladiators, then as trumpeters, then as tragic actors. So you will also be at one time an athlete, at another a gladiator, then a rhetorician, then a philosopher, but with your whole soul you will be nothing at all. But like an ape you imitate everything that you see, and one thing after another pleases you. For you have not undertaken anything with consideration, nor have you surveyed it well, but carelessly and with cold desire. [XXIX]
Epictetus is warning us that ambition and skill are insufficient. Merely wanting to win and having some talent aren't enough. Instead, we must "observe the things which come first" and dedicate ourselves to the preparation that is the necessary precondition for success. We must persist through adversity, pain, boredom and failure. It's fine for children to try on different identities as a form of experimentation; they don't need to train in order to play. (The intensive training and specialization that increasingly characterize youth sports are actually contributing to an increase in injuries.) But adults who aspire to excellence will only get so far without a disciplined approach. In short, we must commit to a practice.
A theme in my coaching with leaders is the recognition that the skills and abilities that helped them achieve their current levels of success will not be sufficient to enable them to accomplish their next set of goals. This can take many different forms: The founder recruits experienced executives and realizes that now she's managing people who know much more about their functional areas than she does. The CEO doubles the size of the company, adding a new layer to the org chart, and discovers that leading leaders poses an unexpected set of challenges. The CTO builds out his team and finds that he adds more value by facilitating productive conversations than through his technical expertise.
All of these people have a desire to lead and are relatively effective leaders, or they wouldn't have reached these roles to begin with. But a common thread running through these situations is the increasing complexity and difficulty of leadership at scale among senior people; merely wanting to lead and possessing a natural set of skills are insufficient. What's being asked of my clients is to take their performance as leaders to the next level, and what's required is to approach leadership as a professional practice.
The author Steven Pressfield discusses what it means to be a professional in The War of Art:
The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning "to love." The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his "real" vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. [pp 62-3]
This is the work my clients face--committing full-time to improving as a professional leader. What does this look like in more concrete terms? Pressfield explores this theme more fully in his later book Turning Pro, the source of the passages quoted below:
The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habits. The human being is a creature of habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones. [p 20]
A first step here is simply noticing the habits we do have, both bad and good. Habits are often automatic and even unconscious responses to a set of environmental cues and triggers. We have to step out of our immediate experience on a regular basis to expand our awareness of the environments we're operating in and the habitual responses they trigger. For a leader this can certainly take the form of journaling and reflection, but it should also include conversations with others who are in a position to offer both coaching and feedback.
When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. Our aim centers on the ordering of our days in such a way that we overcome the fears that have paralyzed us in the past. We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it. We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so that we stick to this resolution. This changes our days completely. It changes what time we get up, and it changes what time we go to bed. It changes what we do and what we don't do. It changes the activities we engage in and with what attitude we engage in them. It changes what we read and what we eat. It changes the shape of our bodies. [p 72]
It's no accident that I discuss mindfulness, exercise, and sleep with most of my clients. These practices not only contribute directly to a leader's effectiveness by supporting better prioritization, emotion management, and decision-making, but they also entail a new perspective on "the ordering of our days." Even when a leader agrees in principle that self-care is an investment, not an indulgence, they still need to take control of their calendar in order to follow through on these commitments. And show me your calendar, and I'll show you what you value.
The pro mindset is a discipline that we use to overcome resistance. To defeat the self-sabotaging habits of procrastination, self-doubt, susceptibility to distraction, perfectionism, and shallowness, we enlist the self-strengthening habits of order, regularity, discipline, and a constant striving after excellence. [p 103]
We all have our "self-sabotaging habits," so it's essential to understand how routine practices influence our state of mind and either exacerbate our demons or help us overcome them. This is particularly important for leaders given the contagious effect of their emotions on others, for better and for worse. One of the most significant requirements of a leadership role is the ability to inspire confidence and calm in others, even--and especially--when the leader is wrestling with doubt and anxiety. I'm not suggesting that leaders should be deceptive or strive to appear invulnerable at all times, but leadership is a performance, and sometimes that obligates a leader to manage their emotions and regulate their behavior accordingly. Investing in a consistent set of "self-strengthening" habits is key.
A practice implies engagement in a ritual. A practice may be defined as the dedicated, daily exercise of commitment, will, and focused intention aimed, on one level, at the achievement of mastery in a field but, on a loftier level, intended to produce a communion with a power greater than ourselves. [p 108]
Leaders operate under intense scrutiny--in every interaction their behavior is being carefully assessed and interpreted. As a consequence leadership is a constant process, not an occasional one, and leaders must be capable of dedicating themselves to this "daily exercise of commitment, will, and focused intention." This is depleting--and yet another reason why self-care is so important.
Pressfield's reference to "communion with a power greater than ourselves" is also relevant, and it need not be limited to the spiritual realm. A powerful motivator for many of my clients is the sense of communion they enjoy with the people they lead at particular moments in the organization's life. These experiences--both successes and failures--are characterized by strong collective emotions, and what's required of a leader at such moments is the ability to be vulnerable in just the right way at just the right time. And the mastery of these interpersonal skills requires a commitment to leadership as a professional practice.
A practice has a space.
A practice has a time.
A practice has an intention.
We come to a practice as warriors.
We come to a practice in humility.
We come to a practice as students. [pp 109-114]
The precise nature and definition of these qualities in each leader's professional practice will differ, but they apply to everyone. Every leader requires dedicated space and time to pursue their craft, which often involves creating the right environment for meaningful thinking. Every leader, at some point in their career, must summon their warrior energy and have a good fight. Every leader, at many points in their career, must humble themselves and acknowledge their incompetence. And every leader must be a committed student--of leadership and of themselves--in order to grow.
And sometimes you will strain the hand, put the ankle out of joint, swallow much dust, sometimes be flogged, and after all this be defeated. When you have considered all this, if you still choose, go to the contest.