I’ve just finished watching a short documentary on the making of the Brian Wilson album 'No Pier Pressure'. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will know my deep connection with his music from the time of the Beach Boys through until today. His eclectic style and ability to continuously learn and produce outstanding music is simply amazing.
What stood out for me most though is listening to the much younger artists he brought in for this album talk about their experience in working with him on this album.
All of them, Kasey Musgraves, Nate Reuss, Sebu, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward – a new generation of performers, all established in their own right, describing what it means to be engaged in the creative relationship with Brian Wilson. And all of them spoke about Brian’s desire for getting things right. Really right. Perfect even? And at the same time they spoke about Brian learning as he understood their voices, and folded that into his style to allow for a co-creation and perhaps an output that was better than what he originally had in mind from a production perspective. One of them also spoke of how Brian draws in the best musicians because he can get them to lift more than they normally would.
Then it hit me. What I was watching was a masterclass in engaging leadership.
He certainly has his ideas for how something should be, and the creative process is a high-risk environment. The risk being that your creativity can be trashed at the whim of the consumer and critics.
And leadership is no different.
Really good leadership is often about having an idea about where you are going and articulating that. At the same time it is about listening to your team and those around you, and being prepared to fold in their ideas to make the journey and outcome more effective than it was going to be. But where’s the risk in that? Well, anytime you are prepared to create a strategy, a plan for the future, a blue-print for a new product or service; you are putting your creative self out there for criticism. Show me anyone who has done this and I’ll bet that they can list at least one person who criticised what they proposed.
Beyond this, all of the younger musicians spoke about being inspired and lifted despite his drive for perfection. In fact, I would say a big part of the inspiration was because of his famous drive for perfection…for wanting to get things just right. How often do we hear the message that there is no such thing as perfection; and that’s true when it comes to ‘us’. As humans, we are only perfect whilst ever we are growing, developing, learning and seeking to do things better than we may have done it before. That is what I saw in that documentary; both from the actions of Brian Wilson and in the reflections of the younger artists.
I am a believer that an important part of leadership is not being prepared to settle for second-best; firstly in myself, and therefore in others. This also implies a wonderful thing. It means we believe that even when we do and celebrate great work, we also believe that the team can still lift some more. It means that when things don’t work out so well, we believe that our team can learn, grow and give it another go. That is a wonderful and inspiring belief to have as a leader. Belief in self and belief in others.
The minute we stop believing this, I think we start to reduce our impact as leaders; we commence the gradual erosion of engagement. So perhaps Brian Wilson brings something to the table when it comes to learning about engaging leadership? Perhaps a motto for being an engaging leader (and for life in general) can be found in the words of Brian Wilson...
"Beware the lollipop of mediocrity…lick it once and you’ll suck forever!”
The next key leadership trait is being eclectic. This simply means not ascribing to one single way of leading and having an open mind to possibilities. Importantly it allows for spontaneity, and a more natural leadership style to come through.
Now this doesn’t mean that you don’t have the bigger picture in mind or a strategy for where you are leading the team. This is still an essential requirement…but how you get your team to the end goal is where being eclectic can be a huge advantage. Take the bridge in this photograph; the big picture is to get across the river, and I'm sure that the people who built this bridge would have liked to have had timber, nails and a range of tools at their disposal. However what is clear is that whilst this wasn't the case, the people who built this drew on the resources and experience available to achieve the goal.
So what does being eclectic mean?
I will leave this post with a different way of thinking about leadership and being eclectic. Imagine the song, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. I can guarantee that if you have attended half a dozen jazz festivals that you have heard this tune played in half a dozen different ways. Yet each time you heard it you knew the name of the tune and how it would end (‘the bigger picture’)…and the journey that each of the jazz groups took to achieve the final note was most likely very different. However the big question is this…were any of these versions the ‘wrong’ version? No, of course not. Each group simply played the tune to suit their personality and the experience within the band. The same goes for choosing your leadership style.
Be eclectic, and lead to your own tune.
Flexibility will help you survive, and succeed, in leadership.
Research has told us for some time that those of us who don’t cope well with stress tend to fear change. This impacts on our ability to make effective decisions, not just for ourselves, but for those we lead as well.
Most importantly it reduces, or removes, our ability to be flexible; to bend with breeze, roll with the punches, and then be resilient enough to pick ourselves up and just get on with it.
There are two easy things you can start doing today that will help you increase your flexibility and resilience as a leader:
Prioritise Need to Know versus Nice to Know
We all know that the pace of change in business and life is rapid, and the reality is that we won’t be able to keep up with everything. Yet this is an increasing source of stress for leaders, especially in global organisations with complex structures where it seems policy, process and structure is shifting on a regular basis. The key is to be smart; prioritise the changes that are important for you to be across against those that are nice to be known. This will not only help you think more critically about what is happening in your organisation or industry, it is a rational process that allows you to develop skills in time management (which as we all know is another source of stress!)
Improve Your Stress-Awareness
Leadership can be a lonely place; and if you are a leader responsible for driving change it can be even lonelier. This is not the ideal environment to be experiencing destructive stress. Unlike constructive stress, that’s sort of stress we experience when we are being stretched, learning new things or playing sport for example, destructive stress has it’s foundation in unhealthy beliefs about our self, and our ability to deal with situations. When we experience destructive stress we are unable to access the full range of possible solutions to problems, because we are more focussed (unconsciously) on protecting ourselves.
To improve your stress-awareness, the quickest and most effective way to get results is to team up with a coach, mentor or counsellor who is qualified to explore with you the source of your stress, and to help you work with it. Alternatively, depending on the level of stress you may experience, there are plenty of online resources available, and of course volumes of books in the self-help section of your local book store.
I guess the key message is to do something about it!
An effective leader is a healthy-minded and resilient leader. Remember that your behaviour is out there for all to see, including the decisions you make and how you make them. If you are able to keep up with the changes in your organisation and industry, and have a healthy level of stress-awareness, then you are in a far better place from which to lead.