From time-to-time, I and my colleagues are asked this question and/or we ask it of the leaders with whom we work: “What in your past has shaped you as the leader you are today?” I was once again asked the question. Each time, it gets more difficult to pin-point a developmental epiphany out of the myriad experiences all of us have. I’m always tempted to say that all my experiences shape me as a person and a leader. And that flip answer is of course quite true on at least one level. Yet some experiences and relationships matter more than others: that special teacher, your parent(s), sibling(s), a near death experience, etc.
Leadership lessons are found in many different places. One not very dramatic but telling experience for me was my vocal work in Junior High and High School. My then girl friend (and amazing spouse) and I sang in many choruses. We sang in the Church Youth Choir, the Junior High Concert Choir and the High School Madrigal Choirs. And we always were “selected” audition for the Western Massachusetts District Chorus and the All State Chorus which comprised voices from all the schools which joined in one huge Concert Chorale. The performances were amazing.
The tryouts were always nerve-wracking and difficult. First, we had to have our choral director encourage us and recommend that we try out. Next, we had to learn a very difficult four part piece that was to be sung for the audition. Then, there was a quartet formed by the District or State conductor and we, individually, would replace “our voice” in that quartet. So for example, I would replace the Tenor and have to sing with the other three voices; Soprano, Alto and Bass. The music was always sung A Capella. This approach meant that I could not rely on another Tenor to help me with my music, nor could I “hear” my part from the piano accompaniment. The conductor was looking for us to be able to blend our voices with the other voices and not be overpowering or timid. We were to take a leadership role when our entrance came first and we had to watch both the conductor and the other singers for their body cues. If there was a solo part for my voice, I had to be appropriately strong, clear and, of course, on pitch.
Music is an exercise in full collaboration as well as an exercise in leadership (see Leadership and Strings for more.) And as I think about it, I believe singing has made a big impression on me and how I tend to lead and manage teams. Sadly, it seems a pretty bad cold damaged my vocal cords and constant tinnitus with reduced hearing has made music less appealing to me these days. But my wife continues to find joy and challenge in her choral work. She takes classes at Irvine Valley College and sings in their Master Chorale. And, even though I might be a bit biased, she still sings like an Angel!
So what lessons in leadership have you learned from your unique life experiences? How are you shaped by them? Can you continue to learn new leadership skills or have you gone as far as you dare to go? For me — Sum etiamtum.