We will follow a leader who tells a story we believe in, and who demonstrates that she or he believes in this story as well. Imagination is the quality of seeing this story, where others see the tasks.
Who cares enough about you to hold you to the highest standards? Sometimes our greatest professional relationships may challenge us, or bring feelings of discomfort, and sometimes that is the role we must take with others, too. As leaders we have to make choices about our approach when coaching or leading members of our team. What are those times when we have a duty to challenge those around us in order to help them positively?
A workshop facilitator recently asked me to describe someone who made a great difference in my life. Almost immediately I thought of a teacher, George Vosburgh. Recounting old teachers, we often fall into a wistful affection, with sepia tinted memories. Not so with George.
I was proud to get to study with him. He has been the lead trumpet player with the Philadelphia Symphony for many years now, and at the time I studied with him he was second most senior player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He is commonly seen as one of the premier orchestral players in the world. I look at those four months of lessons I had with him as among the most important learning times of my life. I still date my understanding of myself and my performance capability as ‘Before George’ and ‘After George’.
My memory of George is not affectionate in the traditional sense, though. He really didn’t seem to like me, and I didn’t like him much at first, either. He had an intense face, a red beard, and I don’t recall him ever smiling. He challenged me at a crucial time in my performance career, and I have taken the lesson of how he did this as important to me as a performer. But I also learned from him as a leader about the importance challenging the comfort zone of those with whom I work.
The summer I sought him out, I travelled from where I attended music school to Chicago. He agreed to meet with me, but I would have to audition to see if he would accept me as a student. I thought to impress him, so I started with one of the more difficult pieces in the trumpet literature, a piece I had been working on for my junior recital.
He stopped me after the first line.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not like that. Can you play me a C scale?’
A scale? I started to play the simple scale.
‘Slowly!’ he interrupted.
I played it slowly.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said,’ just play the first note.’
I played it.
‘Listen,’ he said. He played the note. ‘Play that.’
He then proceeded to teach me to play a note. We took it apart, with its beginning, middle and ending. It’s tone and dimensions of expression. We spent an hour just looking at the basics of how to play a note.
He set me an assignment to play a few simple scales, some range practice, and a simple, simple melody. He made it clear that I was not ready to be attempting difficult pieces until I started with baby steps again, and basically re-learn how to play my instrument.
I left that first lesson wondering what I had gotten myself in for. He did not express much warmth, or interest in me, and was not an encouraging teacher, or a teacher interested in his students. I was frustrated, and wondered if I had made a mistake in approaching him.
I left the lesson discouraged, but I also left the lesson feeling like I had seen a new world of trumpet playing. He was teaching my ears as much as teaching my fingers and breath.
Medicine, it is said, given at the wrong time and wrong amount, can become poison. The reverse is also true, that what is often a negative can help. The same can be said of leading others.
We discuss this in regards to performance management, in the Australian Applied Management Colloquium program. Of course we stress positivity and nurturing our people, but sometimes a confronting approach will bring out the best for the task at hand.
George was good medicine for me. Great teachers will often break their students pre-conceptions and comfort zone down. George was forcing me to go beyond what I had been taught, and to connect with each moment of making music directly. I was overconfident, and overly comfortable with my accomplishments so far. He booted me up the butt and got me to take the next step into direct perception of the music I was playing.
As leaders we must nurture as well as challenge, and the key to doing this well is to have a clear sense of what it is we are trying to create together. George was a great musician, and had been pushed by his own teachers to listen carefully, and to take apart every aspect of his own performance. He cared deeply about making great music. He paid service to that, and expected me, as his student, to focus on my performance more than the stroking of my ego. In doing so he offered me a great teaching in what makes for great performance.
The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes & Posner (2008, Jossey-Bass) Kirk Fisher The classic book I’ve chosen this month is ‘The Leadership Challenge,’ by Kouzes and Posner. The authours went around the world, across all sorts of cultures and nationalities, and they looked at what leaders do when extraordinary results happen in organisations. Just take one [...]
“The reasonable person adapts to the world. The unreasonable person persists in trying to adapt the world to his ideals. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable one.” –George Bernard Shaw “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” –Will Rogers Teaching principles, without first changing mindset, is [...]