Leadership: March to the beat of your own drum

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When I was about 14 I was fortunate enough to have drum lessons from an outstanding teacher. Despite being located over an hour away from my home, each week I would travel from Ealing in West London to Shoreditch in East London for my 60 minute drum lesson. What that teacher taught me has changed the way that I approach life and leadership, now that I am older I find myself applying his strategies to my professional life as a Director of Learning Technologies at my school in Western Australia.

In just a few years my tutor taught me that being a good leader was a combination of dedication, practice and applying one’s own personality.

Being a great drummer is to be a great leader.
Like any team, a band is only a strong as its weakest link. But to have a particularly bad drummer is to lay a very weak foundation for the rest of your colleagues… or musicians. An average lead guitarist, or singer can go unnoticed provided that the drummer is modestly keeping the groove. Occasionally the “back-bone” of the band demonstrates their flair, but typically they are underpinning their colleagues, making them perform to the best of their potential.

A band is only as good as their drummer.
A common mistake of most young and enthusiastic drummers is to play loud and fast. By squeezing as many notes and fills into a performance showcases their own ability, but does not contribute to the most important thing; that is a well written and performed song. The first lesson that I learnt was that a good leader understands rhythm. Knowing when not to play, or to just maintain a great groove, is as important as unleashing your best “chops” or showcasing your skills constantly.

Practice, practice, practice.
When the pressure is on, you will need to perform flawlessly. From a drummer’s perspective, the best way to achieve this is through something called muscle memory. The constant repetition of motor movements train our brains to execute such tasks almost sub-consciously. So to play a paradiddle or a double stroke roll comes naturally because you have spent many hours practicing this technique. Through constant reading and reciting, a great leader will perform without conscious effort too. Critical conversations, public speaking and responding quickly to incidents are second nature to great leaders. Maintaining their composure throughout, inspires those around them.

It’s all about timing.
Every moment that you are drumming you are acutely aware of the objective/the destination and where you are in the piece. You know that in order to reach the chorus, the verse and bridge have to executed perfectly. None of this can be rushed, and your colleagues need to be lead on a steady and unwavering pulse. You lead by example and it can be extremely hard work. You must be constantly seen and heard, like a conductor amongst a orchestra. Or as Steve Jobs famously said (as per the Steve Jobs movie: “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

It's about knowing when not to play.
This is all about dynamics and personal expression. Great drummers should never listen to just their own performance. Instead it is vital that they hear the overall sound of the ‘collective’ performance. What is it that you are adding to the sound? Should you be playing quieter? Are you responding with enough emotion to the piece? These are the truly creative components to the puzzle, and are developed through one’s own musical repertoire of those that inspire or influence you. It is here that you have the opportunity to influence the structure of the song, and the music itself. By applying the correct dynamics, you can hand leadership over to another performer, or you might increase intensity of those around you via a gradual crescendo. Good drummers enable creative song writers on their team, great drummers will enhance the quality of the song and contribute to its creation, and write songs of their own.

An exercise of humility.
Often the best drummers are not quite as popular as the singers or lead guitarists in their band. And it is this humility that really resonates with me. Take Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. The song has become a popular classic with years of airplay. But this song would not have existed had it not been for Steve Gadd, who’s drum performance undoubtedly influenced the whole structure of the piece. Steve Gadd’s drumming has earned him the status of a legend amongst drumming circles, and this is recognition enough for most great leaders.

Unbeknown to me at the time, it was the leadership of this great drum tutor in London over 20 years ago that has impacted how I conduct myself now. I often think of his never-ending patience and selfless dedication to helping me improve. He understood the bigger picture of his influence upon me, and used this brilliantly to improve not just my drumming but my mind-set too. His flair as a performer was obvious and he had no formal training as a teacher, but this clearly did not hold him back.