RockStar Leadership: Commitment, Not Compliance

Songwriting is a lot like cooking blindfolded.

You go in with a general idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, but the end product doesn’t always look (taste?) anything like your original vision. Salt is mistaken for sugar; lemons are fumbled for limes; what felt originally like a jar of salsa was chutney instead.

The result can be anything between brilliantly inspired and wildly unpalatable.

The same goes with my rock band. I’ve brought forward song ideas to our group and watched verses become choruses, choruses become bridges, bridges become intros, and intros become cutting-room casualties. I’ve seen measured rhythm become syncopated and vice-versa. I’ve had a general idea of a lyrical theme in mind and seen our lead singer bring in a completely different idea. Often, what ends up on the session recording is magical. Sometimes, the feedback I get from other band members causes me to see that the original song structure was untenable; then I’m back to the drawing board to try again.

Ya’ know what? In the end, it works – and something truly magical has happened along the way.

A monologue has evolved into a dialogue and then into a musical conversation. Our drummer hooks onto the general idea of the song and asks, “how about a big break here and a double cymbal crash to come out of it?” Our bassist decides – with a little help – to invert a scale progression and add tension to an opening section. I’ll trash an early guitar solo as the piece evolves and rewrite it to fit the new vibe. What began as a scribbled riff in my notebook, or a throwaway recording on my handy Zoom H4, has become something very different; it’s music owned by everyone in the band. Everyone’s got his say, and everyone adds value and vision to the process.

Don’t get me wrong. There are arguments along the way. Occasionally one or more of us will stand on a point; this can’t go there. I don’t feel it. We need that vocal held, because I want to come up under it; you need a different word. The drums need to stay with this line. But we all understand that by flexing where we can, we build something stronger than one person’s monolithic vision – we build music we believe in. I see it when we’re onstage – when Jay is nodding along with the groove he helped build, when Mike goes for the high note he wrote with everything he has, when Sean is pounding away in commitment – not compliance. It’s ours.

Frankly, it doesn’t happen if any one of us comes in with an autocratic vision. Sure, I could hand out sheet music and start counting in. But what I’d get is compliance. Compliance sure looks like commitment in the early stages of a project, but it lacks inspiration, fire, agreement. It’s the shadow of a larger, grander, multidimensional object that exists only when everyone on the team is granted the freedom to give to the best of his or her abilities.

Leadership isn’t always about circling a destination on a map and telling the troops to march toward it.

That’s instruction, but not development; order-giving, not activating. Real leadership is putting people in a place to lead themselves; then, to lead others around them; ultimately, to lead a group. You’re not going to do this forever. (Are you?) Their first efforts on this front aren’t likely to be pretty, but unless we’re willing to accept that as the price of progress of improvement – and, on occasion, have a backup plan ready to quietly share – employees don’t grow and evolve. The next time you’re given a task to carry out, or have an inspiration for a project, keep your sheet music in your pocket. See what your team writes. You might be very surprised at the passion in the music that comes forth.

Are you willing to accept the price of progress in your organization? Do you have the professional courage to invest in people for the longer-term benefit of the team? Or do you frighten more easily under the pressures to produce and shortcut others’ growth? How challenging is trusting yourself and your team in leading development of others? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Dave Mayer is EVP & Executive Director of Aristeia, Inc.
He can be reached at

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~ by Dave Mayer on December 7, 2009.

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