Improvisational Leadership: Part 4 – Skill

Years ago I ran across a guy that so impressed me as a musician.  He was a “Piano Man”.  Initially I had seen him play in church but I had also seen him in a restaurant/bar context.  You could throw out almost any song and he would just begin playing it.  I was working on a project once that I needed some background music for.  I sat down with him for just a few minutes to tell him what I was looking for – and he just started playing.  Right out of the box he began playing exactly what I was looking for.  In my opinion, this guy had the gift.  I tell people that he spoke the language of music fluently.

Being able to speak a language fluently (any language) isn’t for the faint of heart.  It takes real discipline and practice.  Yes – some people have the ability to assimilate and process languages more quickly than others.  But people don’t just wake up speaking other languages.  It takes real discipline and practice.

I have a new granddaughter who came to visit me for a couple of weeks recently.  She is almost a year old.  She doesn’t have very many words in her vocabulary just yet.  Maybe a “ma-ma” or a “da-da” here and there but most of her communication comes from smiles, laughter, playful growls and cries.  It’s really interesting to watch her.  When the room isn’t paying attention to her she is already learning what to experiment with in order to get all eyes on her.  She’s learning what people tend to respond to and she is leveraging her actions to get the desired result.  She is learning to speak the language and she doesn’t even speak words yet.  Bottom line – she is learning how to communicate.


My granddaughter with her aunt (who had just graduated).  

The work of competent leadership requires much the same journey.  No matter how many tools or instruments we may have – until we begin bringing some skill to the use of them they are merely decoration.  A book or a conference can be great places to gather data but if we will be fluent in the language of leadership we must begin practicing and experimenting with the things we are learning.

I’m a wannabe guitarist.  I can crank out some chords and strum a generally competent rhythm.  The problem is that I’m an undisciplined and generally lazy wannabe guitarist.  That means I’d like to play like Eric Clapton but with little or no effort.  Guess what – that’s not going to happen.  I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak with a handful of competent guitarists.  They all have something in common.  They love playing the guitar — all the time!  More than one has told me that they would sit for hours in their room as a kid and play along with the radio or work on learning some song.  And they did it time and time again.  An interesting note – they all got good at it!

You’ve probably figured it out – what I’m telling you isn’t new at all.  This principle is real everywhere.  Sports, singing, sewing – you name it.  Musicians – for the most part – aren’t born – they are made.  Sporting greats – the same.  It’s true for leaders too.  Yes – there’s some inherent skill in all of us for one thing or another but – if we will be fluent – we must keep engaging in the work of discipline and practice.

Stay tuned….

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