It’s How You Play the Music

The leader of a large organization wanted help shifting his first line leaders’ roles to servant leadership, which means leading others through development, coaching and facilitation. Servant leadership is intended to replace command and control leadership.

We’d just finished assessing this leader’s work environment.  People we talked with told us the current leadership doesn’t foster a climate of openness and trust. They said they don’t have the information or resources they need to do their jobs well. First line managers weren’t involving people in decision making. The operation was underperforming on three of its four major goals.

Clearly, if the work environment was improved in the right way then performance could improve.  The leader asked what exactly could we do to address his dilemma.

I began explaining the steps in great detail, including brief stories about other large companies who had successfully navigated their way through the same process. I mentioned how they’d clarified the leaders’ roles, gave them new skills, measured their progress and held them accountable for doing their jobs differently. In each case, operating or financial performance improved.

When I finished describing the process he responded, somewhat abruptly, “We already do that!”

Ah, but it’s less about the process itself and more about how it’s executed.

“All music groups have access to the same sheet music,” I told him. “All sports teams have access to the same plays. But it’s not about the sheet music or the plays. It’s about how well the music is played or how well the plays are executed.”

With that, he nodded and we proceeded to improve his operation.

I repeatedly hear reputable and well-intentioned business leaders who think the shiny new object will be the source of skyrocketing performance. “Let’s do one of these,” a leader says pointing at a new business book that promises instant success. The staff says, “Yes sir,” and another program bites the dust.

Great execution is hard work. If your goal is excellence, ten percent of the trip should be about having the right strategy or plan. Ninety percent should be about damned good execution.  How well do you play the music?


  1. what a fantastic metaphor. You are so right, the nuances and interpretation are everything when we communicate. As as leaders–it’s critical we understand just how to connect.

  2. Knowing you as well as I do,Jim, I would add that it’s also ‘the words.’ What would Richard Rogers have been without Oscar Hammerstein or Lorenz Hart? You above all would say the words and the music (the say and the do) make up the complete melody. So leaders must p;rovide the lyrics. And that, dear friends, is why technology alone will not carry the freight in internal communication. Nor will social media if it’s only a series of riffs among the musicians.

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