When I was a teenage bass player, to be honest, I wasn’t very good. I mean, I could play a handful of pieces reasonably well, but that was only because I played them over and over again. If you gave me a new piece of music, uh-oh. I had to start from zero in figuring out how to play it. And the majority of music students around me employed the exact same piecemeal approach.
I was eager to get better, but I had no idea of how to go about it. So I asked an accomplished violinist for advice. He replied (rather tersely, I might add), “Go home and practice your fundamentals.” He went on to explain that, if one possesses total command of the fundamental elements of music, i.e., scales and chords, then one can play any piece of music “at sight.” (In the music world, we call this “sight reading.” It’s amazing how many people can’t do it.)
This was very different from all my lessons up to that point, which had placed tremendous focus on getting quick, if somewhat limited, results. None of my teachers had ever demanded mastery from me. There was something of a conflict of interest afoot, for if I were to achieve mastery, I probably would have stopped paying them for lessons.
So, sure enough, my violin friend was right. After several months of grinding out nothing but the dull boring fundamental elements of music, I was able to play (almost) any piece of music at sight. (You, dear reader, also possess this level of mastery, in at least one dimension: reading this article is an extraordinarily complex task, and yet you’re doing it without even thinking about it.)
That’s a nice story that I have told to many audiences, but let me now treat this as an emotional fractal, and apply it to leadership development.
There is a never-ending flow of advice these days on how to be a more effective leader and manager. But in reading the many articles and books describing the attributes of effective leaders, I am reminded of those individual pieces that I once learned by rote so many years ago. While better than nothing, it is again a piecemeal approach that will never lead to achieving mastery. So the big question is, if you want to get really good at leading, what are the fundamentals of leadership? Because theoretically, if you had total command of those, you could lead or manage any situation with ease, even if it was totally new and unfamiliar.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say that the real fundamentals of leadership are not about the leader’s own force of personality, their vision, their charisma, or their technical knowledge. The core fundamental of leadership is about understanding the emotional underpinnings of the people you are trying to lead.
Bullfighters study other bullfighters, but they also spend an awful lot of time studying bulls. The more you know about how bulls behave, the more control you have over the situation. Imitating what you can see an expert bullfighter doing might get you through a bullfight, but then again, it might not, especially if the bull is not in the mood to help you along. It’s very important to have some comprehensive knowledge of how the bull is looking at the situation, and that knowledge – that “invisible mastery”– takes time to acquire. There is no method book that will give you that gut-level insight.
When it comes to managing people, the biggest problem in developing this invisible aspect of leadership is, it is fairly difficult to get your hands on reliable information without testing each piece yourself. An awful lot of people just tell us what we want to hear, and they leave out what they don’t want us to hear. Sycophants abound, telling us all how wonderful we are. If you have power to hire and fire, it’s highly likely that information coming to you has been edited in some way. There is also the problem of being immersed in a cultural silo that gives you a narrowly skewed model. Our industrial legacy makes us want to make broad generalizations about people. Then there is the gauze placed over our perceptions by social media. And never mind how often we are naively drawn to idealized visions of what we would like other people to be.
I can’t begin to tell you how many conductors I played for that had a completely incorrect model in their mind of what bass players like me thought about. Mayhem always ensued.
As a leader on the social dance floor, I started out by trying to emulate the physical motions of other leaders that I thought were impressive. For years, I went through a blind rote exercise in “doing it like the teacher said” while struggling to get the partner/follower to bend to my will. Then one day, yet another accomplished artist taught me the fundamentals, in this case, of dance partners. Once I acquired a core understanding of how dance followers “work,” I had complete control, and I could do any fancy pattern– or make one up one the spot– with ease.
Most of us are naturally narcissistic and somewhat self-conscious, especially when we’re trying to do something for the first time, and especially when we’re doing something that is as vulnerability-exposing as being in a leadership position. We’re always eager to get a sense of control, and lots of people try to leverage our fear in selling us advice on how we can do the task with minimal effort or risk. It’s easy to think we can get the job done via a simple process of following procedures and emulating the experts. But this never works. You must acquire this invisible element of mastery, which is understanding what your followers are all about. Sadly, most of your followers have no objective sense of themselves either, they just know what they like and don’t like. Achieving this invisible element of leadership mastery, like anything else, is a long hard road of experiment, discovery, and ever-rising consciousness.
(About the Author: Justin Locke is a freelance writer, playwright, coach, consultant, and speaker. He is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, a pragmatic guide on how smart people can take advantage of the Dilbert Principle, and Real Men Don’t Rehearse, a laugh-out-loud memoir of playing bass in the Boston Pops. In his books, workshops, and presentations he shares an amusing artistic perspective on the challenges of management, and just coping with life in general. Visit his website at www.justinlocke.com.)