Someone said to me recently, “You can’t learn to run from a book.” That really got me thinking.

Watch the video below or the blog post that follows to learn more. 

The idea behind that phrase, “You can’t learn to run from a book” is of course, that learning something in theory is not the same as doing it. And so if you only read about running, but you’re never out there actually on the track or on the field or on the path, you’re not actually going to learn how to run. So true!

I see it all the time with people and their leadership or career skills. They want the next promotion, but that means they’ll need some additional skills. So they read books, or watch videos, or sign up for some kind of certification program. Those are great things to do, but they won’t help you actually take that next step.

It’s so easy to get lost in learning – to feel like you need that one more class, or one more qualification, before going after your dreams. In that place, the worry that we’re not ready yet means we keep putting obstacles in our own way. We think, “I’ll be ready when I finish this program.” Or, “I’ll be ready when I have this degree.” It’s a great way to stay busy without moving forward. Like treading water.

It would be a much better investment of your time and energy to seek out opportunities to try out what you want to learn. Rather than reading a book or watching an online lecture, see if you can find a project where you can develop the skills you want to learn. For example, if you’re currently leading a small team, but want to move up to managing a team of teams, see if there’s a way to simulate that. Is there a project you can take on where you’d be influencing other managers? Or if there’s a skill you want to build, is there a volunteer opportunity where you could try that out?

I did this early on in my own career. I had been a management consultant for a few years, but I really wanted to shift into organizational consulting and team coaching. I found a non-profit organization where I could volunteer to build out a leadership development program. In that position, I not only got to learn about how to create an effective program, but I got hands-on experience putting it together and running it. That was the very beginning of the work I do now, that I absolutely love.

On The Other Hand – Instruction Can’t Hurt
If you’ve been following me for any time, you know that I tend to think in polarities. Nothing is ever as simple as just one side. So while you can’t learn to run from a book, I believe there is a lot to be gained from understanding the theories about why things work the way they do.

When I was learning to drive a standard transmission, I had a lot of trouble knowing when to press the gas as I was releasing the clutch. Time and again I either stalled the car or peeled out. It was so embarrassing! Then one day I read about the “friction point” where the clutch engages. Once I knew about that, I could feel it, and I never struggled again. With enough trial-and-error, I may have figured this out on my own, but reading that one paragraph really saved me a lot of time. Understanding how the clutch worked made it possible for me to successfully change gears over and over, every time.

Here’s another example. My son joined winter track last year to learn how to run better, to be faster on the Ultimate (frisbee) field. On the track team, the coaches provided clear instruction on how to dig in their feet, how to lift their legs, how to pump their arms. It was a major revelation and my son was completely flabbergasted by how different it felt, and how much faster they could go. Running is something that most of us have picked up by instinct, without any instruction. And that’s fine. But there’s a technique to being a really great runner. Knowing that technique makes a difference.

The same can be true for being a manager. Most people learn how to manage by following their instincts, or – if they’re lucky – following in the footsteps of a great boss. But that will only get you so far. Sometimes what it takes to be a really great manager and leader is actually counter-instinctual. That’s where it helps to have a deeper understanding of the underlying theories, strategies and skills.

The underlying principles can also help you understand which strategies to apply. In running, there are different techniques for sprinting verses long-distance running. In management, there are a zillion different approaches and philosophies for how to lead – and they don’t all work in all situations. If you don’t have an overarching theory about how they work, it can be difficult to know what to do.

That’s why, with my coaching clients, I not only help them with the issues that are in front of them. I also teach them the underlying theories and frameworks behind them. That way they know not only what to do, but why it works. That means they can adapt when circumstances change. They know how to look for the friction points, and how much gas to apply to the situation as well as when to back off.

You can’t learn to run – or to lead – from a book, but having some clear theories and frameworks is much better than making it up as you go along. Having a coach who can not only support you in the face of various leadership challenges is important. Having a coach who can also provide you with a clear picture of why those strategies work is priceless.

To learn more about how we support our clients through their career challenges, book a call with us today. We look forward to talking with you.

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