“You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.”
– Bob Nelson, Author
If you saw the 2014 movie “Whiplash,” you’ll surely remember Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), the tyrannical jazz band leader fond of profanity and humiliating his young musicians. The film would have you believe this approach to teaching yields great performance, but that hasn’t been my experience. In fact, the best music teachers I’ve had took the opposite tack. They extended their influence not by screaming at and berating me but by inspiring me to get better. They set a clear example of how to achieve success, provided clear and honest feedback, and continually challenged me to improve week by week, month by month.
You have probably invested a significant amount of time and money finding the right employees. To enable them to achieve peak performance, don’t follow the Fletcher model. Extend your influence the same way my music teachers did. Whether you realize it or not, your employees are looking to you to set the right example:
- Be purposeful and methodical in the way you communicate. Employees frequently complain of having to sift through mountains of messages when only a few are really important. In addition, vague or contradictory messages cause confusion and consume valuable time to interpret. Be crystal-clear in both your written and spoken communication.
- Be willing to share your experiences, wisdom, and suggestions so that your employees can excel. We don’t always find the best way the first time and that’s OK. Making mistakes is part of the journey and essential to learning. As leaders, we need to model the behaviors of success and how to rebound after setbacks.
- Make accountability a key value of your team. When I didn’t practice properly for an upcoming lesson, my teachers didn’t lose their temper. They expressed disappointment and told me I could do better. That was a much more powerful way to influence me than yelling.
- Ensure that you and your employees share the same goals. Musicians need to be totally aligned in terms of their performance. If band members tried to play different pieces at the same time, for example, the result would be chaos! When leaders set and communicate specific goals, all employees are working from the same sheet music.
- Empower employees to take initiative and solve problems on their own. Most employees (especially Millennials) want the freedom to be creative, take calculated risks, and try new things. You need to be prepared to encourage their behavior. This does not mean allowing conduct that is inconsistent with organizational values and goals but rather encouraging autonomy, demonstrating confidence in their abilities, and providing coaching when necessary.
- Providing recognition when your employees find a solution to a problem is great, but don’t stop there. Also acknowledge employees who identify a potential problem, as well as those who are making progress on finding a solution but haven’t discovered it yet. Your employees will want to continue down the path of success when they know you appreciate their effort.
Achieving success as a musician is rooted in finding players who not only want to make the group sound good but each individual as well. It’s the same with influential leadership. As leaders, we need to make sure our people are motivated and well-prepared to meet the performance demands they face. It’s not easy, and leadership isn’t for everybody. But for those who accept the role, incorporating the above suggestions as part of your repertoire is the best way I know to get your team playing in harmony.