What Rock Stars Can Teach Leaders

For both groups, flexibility, adaptive capacity, and ability to perform are of paramount importance

Business leaders are often compared to performing artists. Both are on stage a great deal and are expected to sway audiences. The best leaders and performers often rely on dramatic flair to ensure that what they say is memorable and moves others to action (whether that means buying a new CD or a stock offering). And, given the importance of interaction between performer and audience, leaders, like musicians, must be able to "read the house" and tune their message to engage listeners, whether they number one or 100,000.

That's why most business leaders could learn valuable lessons from performers like Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, and Alicia Keys. They are proof that consummate performance demands two qualities: an extraordinary dedication to practice and an insatiable thirst for learning. For example, Clapton has practiced relentlessly throughout his life, even during what he refers to as his "dark times" of drug and alcohol abuse. With the dedication of an aspiring novice, he rehearses chords and phrases, moves his fingers through the air when there is no instrument at hand, and improvises before, during, and after stage performances.

Likewise, Simon and Keys see no distinction between performance and practice; they are intrinsically the same process. The spontaneity of improvisation and the seeming magic of composition on the fly are the product of countless hours of practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

For Clapton, practice isn't limited to a set of songs he's planning on performing. Instead, practice includes repetition of the underlying chords, finger placements, and movements of wrist and hand that enable him to play any song. A performing artist must master underlying moves to accomplish with ease the complicated combinations that create a sound, an effect, or an image for the audience.

The lesson for leaders? First is the recognition that there are leadership "moves" that have to be mastered. Some may be unique to particular organizations or cultures but most are well-known and, like guidebooks to music and magic, any of a hundred books can list for you the things that leaders do, including setting goals and communicating them, listening deeply, testing for understanding, and inspiring others.

Of course, simply knowing what the basics are won't make someone a leader, any more than acquiring a guitar will make him or her a rock star. That's why the second lesson is more challenging: dedication to practice. Leaders in business and government commonly complain that they are performing all the time and have no time to practice. For many, the very notion of practice is off-putting. It's almost a punishment, or an activity for beginners.

Because they harbor a negative concept of practice, many leaders find themselves "stuck" in a given style of performance—a limited repertoire of behavior patterns that they rely on to get things done as a leader, whether it's the very public side of leadership (such as speechmaking) or the less public side (like giving feedback or addressing difficult decisions). If you can't find time to practice, it will be difficult to achieve the kind of flexibility that Dan Goleman attributes to those with high levels of emotional intelligence and that Noel Tichy says is demanded by changes in the global economy. Unless you are satisfied with stagnation or ensconced in a protected backwater, the only way out for time-starved executives is to learn how to practice while they perform.

Ceaseless Quest for Perfection

To illustrate the concept, consider the career of Paul Simon. While practicing and rehearsing, he's also performing, constantly thinking about how to project sound and imagery to an audience. He's notorious for testing the endurance of band members, technicians, and engineers until they get the sound just right. In the midst of performance, he's also practicing, adjusting what he and his band are doing in response to the audience's mood.

The ability to see oneself in action and to adjust as one goes along is fundamental to the extraordinary stage presence of artists as diverse as Simon, Clapton, Bette Midler, and Bruce Springsteen.

Clapton, Simon, and dozens of other outstanding performers and leaders I've studied have discovered how they learn best and how that learning can fuel their growth. In my book Crucibles of Leadership, I refer to this as a Personal Learning Strategy—a highly effective combination of aspiration, a deep understanding of personal motivation, and a keen insight into one's own learning style.

A Personal Learning Strategy is not just a handful of maxims or homilies about what makes a great leader or an eminent performer. Rather, it's the product of deep reflection on what one truly wants to accomplish that's translated into a guide to individual practice. But aspiration is not enough. It's essential to also draw the curtains back on one's own motivations: What's necessary for me to stick with something, even when the drudgery of practice seems to offer no immediate improvement?

And, finally, there's the question of how you actually incorporate new ideas and ways of doing things into your persona. Especially important is how you convert experience—particularly times of trial and adversity that call into question closely held truths—into insight about what it takes to learn and grow

Learning from Your Crisis

In commenting on his autobiography, Clapton conceded that he grappled with writing about aspects of his life—in particular, his addictions and the loss of his son—but realized readers would want to know how he survived and how those experiences shaped his music. Clapton's crucible stories contain revelations shared by leaders who have found themselves challenged by blocked opportunities and hounded by tragedies.

Highly regarded business leaders such as Muriel Siebert, who become the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and Jeff Wilke, senior vice-president at Amazon.com (AMZN), who had to learn to help heal a factory community in the wake of an industrial accident, used their crucibles to fashion an approach to leadership that places the willingness to learn at its core. They found a way in which adversity could make them more effective learners for the rest of their lives.

Flexibility and adaptive capacity are important to rock stars and leaders in another way: Without the willingness to grow and learn, both are likely to find themselves left behind. It is one thing to produce a successful album or organization, but it's quite another to keep up with an evolving genre, with technology, or with audience taste without sacrificing personal integrity. Great performers and leaders retain familiar refrains and signature sounds that provide continuity, even while they incorporate new rhythms and messages.

Finally, there's the paradoxical leadership lesson to be learned from performers as young as Alicia Keys and as weathered as Neil Young: the power of silence. Silence can create anticipation, it can stir the imagination, it can provide a chance to breathe and reflect, and, as artists like Keys and Young have described, it can bring out the best in a performer. Next time you see them perform, notice how they keep the audience waiting and build their expectations. Notice, too, how the audience's anticipation encourages the performers to raise their level of play. In that silence lies a powerful understanding of others and of oneself—an understanding that grows rather than diminishes with time.

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