How I learned to lead by being at the back of the band

When I was kid, I never aspired to be the leader. I was quite happy to not to be the kid who got to choose all the players for the pick-up soccer game at recess. 

I’m not sure why. Maybe I was shy, maybe it’s because I wore glasses that could have been props in Revenge of the Nerds, or I didn’t fit into my view of what I thought a leader should look like: muscular, square-jawed, cape, tights and a cool utility belt. 

I never liked sitting in the front row or raising my hand first for something. I always liked to assess the situation before diving in.  This strategy worked very well for me. Very well, that is, until I became a drummer. 

I was attracted to the drums because, well, you know… because drums are so cool. You might not know how great it feels to play drums. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing timpani (kettle drums) in an orchestra during a Beethoven symphony or banging out the hippest grooves on drum set, it’s (expletive here) exhilarating. Who doesn’t want to sit down behind a drum set and wail away? And of course it’s at the back of the band, i.e. far away from the front. A double win for me, I thought.

Once I started, I was addicted to how great it felt - the power, the physicality - but what I didn’t expect from drumming is what it would teach me about leadership.

So if you think you’re one of those natural born leaders, well, you may as well stop reading right now.  I am not sure I have anything to teach you.  

If you feel you’re more like me (never thought of yourself as a leader but are finding yourself as one), then you need as much insight and experience as you can get, because leadership is a simple concept that is very difficult to do. 

We see people who lead sport teams with loads of talent that do not perform well. We see people who lead companies full of highly educated and experienced people that go out of business or lose market share. So there’s a lot to consider.

You are probably a leader.  Yes, you!

First, I need to show you that you are probably a leader even though you might not know it.

According to the work of Erika Andersen, Author of Leading So People Will Follow, leadership tends to follow a Bell Curve with ones at the front of the curve truly born to lead and who even have an ability to get better. (I assume they’ve stopped reading by now).

Then there are 10 or 15% of folks at the bottom with no hope of being leaders because they lack the right wiring. (I thought this was me but no, I actually fit into the next group). The huge majority of us are in the middle group, the ones with potential. 

You can call yourself mentor, coach, teacher, manager, even Mom or Dad. It doesn’t matter; you don’t need to have CEO or President after your name. If someone is following you or trusting you to lead them, then you are a leader. The point is, the sooner you realize you’re leading or going to be leading, then the sooner you can start to think about the best way to lead, or perhaps more importantly, how not to lead. 

Looking back now, I wish I had been better prepared for leading. I thought this was to be someone else’s job. I thought by choosing an instrument in the “back of the band”, I was hiding from leading, when if fact, I couldn’t have picked a worse instrument to hide with. I wish I’d thought more back then about how to be a leader and I wish I’d paid more attention to other leaders so I could have learned from them. 

What I Did Learn.

Lead with confidence. 

This is probably the number one thing I would say to people who find themselves in positions of being a new leader, and it’s harder than it looks.  Why? Because you’re not a kid anymore and you’re smart. 

As kids, most of us had no trouble with this.  When I first started playing drums, I had confidence in spades. I played with the ego of a teenage boy.  I had a certain aptitude, sure, but I thought I was really good and I played that way. What I mean is, I played like I meant it, with a certain confidence and wild abandon. I led without really knowing it. I don’t ever remember questioning my ability back then. 

My naiveté allowed me to think that I really knew what I was doing. In truth, I knew very little. However, I just took what I knew and “laid it down”, as we musicians like to say. Fortunately, it was enough for the work I was getting at the time.  (I was playing in a few bands and 8 shows a week in a summer musical).  This worked for me in those early years until I started coming into contact with more experienced players, and then reality set in. I realized I didn’t really know very much. I just thought I did. Ouch… It was time to study.

Learn about leaders but beware.

If you want to be a great leader, then you should study other great leaders, right?  Yes, but education can be a double-edged sword.

When I started learning more about drumming and other percussion instruments, it was incredible. Education opened my eyes to where I was at and where I needed to go as a player.  But it also sucked… because I now knew I had a long way to go and it was a bit over-whelming. I had trouble approaching my drums with the same confidence I had before, and it left me with a big question: 

How do you drum (lead) when you know you have lots to learn about how to drum (lead)? 

It took me a while to figure this out, but first, I had to decide if I was up to the challenge. The work in front of me seemed monumental. I didn’t know when I would feel like I had “arrived” or be able to play with the same confidence I had before. 

Then I realized that this is what I chose to do with my life, and I was a drummer and drummers need to play confidently no matter what level they’re at. So the answer was for me to work hard, prepare, do research, learn what I could and get better every day. If I did that, then I would be the best I could be, and if I made smart choices, it would be enough.

Make smart choices.

This is very difficult.  Making smart choices.  I had some growing pains here and I didn’t always make smart choices.  Sometimes I let my ego get in the way and I found myself in situations a little above my ability.  When I did that, it would never end well. So many stories here but that’s another blog post.

A few years later, my private teacher, mentor, inspiration and now friend Russell Hartenberger (of the famed Canadian percussion group Nexus) said to me.  “We need to think carefully about not only the gigs we accept but about the one’s we should turn down.”  

He meant that we needed to be aware of our abilities and whether they were right for the situation we might find ourselves in. If not, we could really do some damage to our reputation.  

In the music business, getting on a fabulous gig can do wonders for getting better paying gigs, experiencing amazing travel or having other great opportunities or experiences, so the lure of all that plus the bragging rights is always pretty tempting.  (When musicians run into each other, the first question is “Hey Man, what gigs have you done lately?”)

What really struck me about Russell’s comment is that it came from one of the greatest and most experienced players on the planet. He has had the career of careers and for him to think that way simply blew me away.  He said that to me some 20 years ago and I still follow his advice to this day. 

You might not have a choice but to lead.

Most people will have an opportunity to lead some day and it is no small task. While some job titles define people as leaders, other folks emerge as leaders depending on the challenges that they face either, by accident or by choice. They may not even consider themselves as leading yet they do so by their actions and by the examples they set.  Those of us who are watching them know that they are leading.

In my corporate presentation, I have non-musicians improvise on drums and percussion instruments. Most groups achieve a pretty good balance of sounds. It can be hard to see or hear who is influencing the direction of the piece, or put another way, who is leading. I never appoint leaders, yet when I stop the group and ask them to point to someone they were following, almost everybody is pointing to someone.  These people are leaders without knowing they are leading. They are leaders appointed by their peers because their peers sensed something about them that set them apart.  

So maybe it’s your time. Maybe it’s time to take your leadership abilities a step further. Maybe it’s time for you to show the world how you would “lay it down”.  It’s scary and fun and extremely rewarding because, ultimately, you’re helping other people get ready for their tur

Please share some of your learning to lead experiences in the comments.