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What Musicians and Leaders Have In Common

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

If you’ve ever seen a talented DJ at work, they’re constantly working. Twisting knobs, moving sliders, and finding the next song that will fade perfectly into the current one. I was recently watching a documentary about Dr. Dre and his career as a rapper, producer, and entrepreneur and there was a scene of him in his studio working at a feverish pace adjusting knobs and sliders throughout the entire beat looking for the perfect blend. That scene was like a lightbulb moment for me as I immediately compared it to leadership. Leaders must be like music producers in the way we adjust and regulate our emotions, personality traits, and communication styles.

Know What Headphones Your Audience Uses

Everyone’s been to a live music performance that left them feeling unimpressed and disappointed when the sounds all blend together and the volume is way too loud. If not, how about the guy who pulls up next to you at the red light with his music blaring out of the stock sound system in his ’98 Chevy Silverado so loud that all you hear is the rattle of the windows and an unpleasant, distorted version of Kid Rock. Talented music producers remix and remaster songs to adapt to the headphones or listening devices their audience owns. Dr. Dre took the time to develop Beats by Dre to make sure his listeners were hearing the message the way it was intended. We need to take a page out of their book as leaders. Know your people, how are they hearing you? What state of mind are they in? What do they respond well to? I’m talking here about genuine connection. Find out what kind of feedback your team responds to. Do they take well to blunt, honest, and direct feedback? Do they need a little love before the tough love? The only way to answer these questions is to ask the right questions yourself.

It’s All About (Managing) the Bass

We’ve all had those leadership moments where we come down too hard on someone and they don’t respond well at all. In this instance, we are similar to a DJ who puts too much bass in a song. It distorts the sound, the lyrics are overpowered, and it leaves the listener with a headache. This is the same thing that happens when you deliver critical feedback in a highly emotional state without taking considering how the other party responds to aggressiveness or confrontation. Does this mean you can never “coach ‘em hard”? Absolutely not. Just like music, the right level of bass drives the lyrics home and listeners find themselves enjoying the thumping that accompanies the rest of the beat. Keep your feedback clear, concise, and never emotional.

Be a Conductor

So, how do we know how much bass to put in our feedback? This is where we need to be like a conductor standing in front of an orchestra. We should know our tendencies as people and our toolbox as leaders. A skilled conductor blends and fades different instrument sections in and out to create a harmonious sound where certain sections take the lead and others support then the roles reverse as needed. Leaders should be doing this with skills like empathy, vulnerability, decisiveness, bluntness, etc. We need to be able to bring home that big bass line with our decisiveness, but know when to ease in that sax solo with our empathy. This skill develops over time and takes a lot of self-awareness to develop and maintain.

Have a Great Hook

Ever been in a bar around midnight when Welcome to the Jungle, Started from the Bottom, or Friends in Low Places comes on? I’m willing to bet you could sing at the chorus to least 1 one of those songs even if you don’t know the rest of the lyrics. Why? Accessibility. The chorus in those songs is memorable and catchy. It flows, it fits, and it tells a story. Your vision should be exactly the same. Your team should get excited when someone talks about your vision and it should resonate with them. The more connected to the vision your team is, the more likely they’ll internalize and embody that vision. Office karaoke and the mission statement? Maybe….

Own Your Story

Why do people respect and recognize rockstars and musicians? They own their look and they own their story. 50 Cent speaks his truth about the hardships of growing up in Jamaica Queens, Kenny Chesney talks about the country lifestyle and the girls that have broken his heart, Motley Crue owns their wild stories in every song they released. Leaders need to do the same, don’t hide your battle scars behind false bravado. Embrace your scars and imperfections to tell your story the same way a great musician speaks his or her truth. People don’t buy things; they buy people and nothing is more powerful than authenticity.

At the end of the day, leadership and music are both about people. Your favorite song evokes an emotional response and has been shown to positively impact mood. Is your leadership doing the same? You don’t need a guitar or a turntable to connect with people, but you do need to make a conscious decision to make that your goal each and every day.

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