The song of leadership

Lessons in leadership show up sometimes in the most unlikely places.

Aug 1st, 2008
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by Katherine Eitel

Lessons in leadership show up sometimes in the most unlikely places. As the mother of two rough-and-tumble boys, one of life's greatest gifts was unexpectedly raising my niece, Carrie, from the age of five. While I've cheered at baseball games, marveled at snowboarding feats, and watched with one eye open at the motocross competitions of my boys, Carrie brought the pleasure of classical cello recitals and junior orchestra competitions. Her love for music introduced our family to a new kind of competition … one where individual achievement is acknowledged but never sounds quite as triumphant as when all the individuals play in harmony together.

As a teenager, Carrie joined a small community orchestra funded solely by parents and fundraising efforts. On the first day of rehearsals, a soft-spoken, petite conductor, Miss Lee, announced that they would be competing in a countywide youth competition. As I looked around at 80 giggling, half-listening teenagers from all walks of life, they seemed an unlikely group to win any award, let alone a first-place orchestra award. Miss Lee definitely had her work cut out.

A hush fell over the noisy room as she went on to say, "I have one crystal-clear objective: helping you become a first-place orchestra. We have four months to prepare and it will not be easy. Some of you will not make it because you aren't willing to do what it takes. I will be meeting with each of you individually to find out your level of commitment. Think hard on it. The competition is stiff. Last year, the winning orchestra went on to win at the national level. We will be competing with larger, school-funded orchestras who enjoy daily school rehearsals, instrument loans, summer orchestra camps, and beautiful coordinated uniforms. This orchestra will have to dress themselves, buy and maintain their own instruments, have weekly rehearsals every Saturday, learn their music and practice on their own. You will work very, very hard but I promise you this: those of you who commit to this effort will never forget the music we will make together."

It took Miss Lee nearly the entire first rehearsal to get the group seated, instruments ready, and sheet music distributed. From the collective moaning of the kids, we parents assumed it was a difficult music selection. I certainly could not have recognized Holland's Opus or Beethoven's 5th from the sounds they produced before dismissal that day.

For months before the orchestra competition, tutors worked with individual groups of instruments but when the groups came together, one conductor had to lead them all. This leader was the conduit through which all individual effort melded into one beautiful piece of music. It was up to her to bring out the best in every player … in every child. She had to share her vision. She had to ask for their undying commitment to do what it would take to win the event. She had to speak frankly with those who would not make that commitment. She had to coach them through their struggles. She asked for each to be a leader to their co-musicians. She had to make sure everyone was playing from the same sheet of music.

That year at the competition, there were many incredible orchestras and flamboyant conductors. Miss Lee's style? Hers was calm, confident, no-nonsense, and expectant. Minutes before they were to go on stage, Miss Lee spoke privately to the nervous group of young musicians. "Four months ago, I shared with you my vision. You have exceeded my expectations. Regardless of the score we garner tonight from the judges, you have accomplished that vision. You have met the challenge. You are a first-place orchestra in every way that matters."

What does this have to do with running an efficient, profitable dental office? Much, I think. I'm not saying that dental offices are like orchestras. I'm saying people are people, and that the keys to motivating them, uniting them, and getting them to perform at their highest potential are pretty much the same whether they're playing in an 80-piece orchestra or working for a dentist.

As a dentist, what if you were to do with your team just what Miss Lee did with hers? "I have one crystal-clear objective: helping us to become the finest dental team in the country by the end of this year. We have six months in which to accomplish this and it will not be easy. Some of you will not make it because you aren't willing to do what it takes. Some of you will exceed all expectations: mine and yours. I will be meeting with each of you individually to find out your level of commitment. Think hard on it. The competition in this town is stiff. You will work very, very hard but I promise you this: Those of you who commit to this effort will never forget the ‘music' we will make together." Well, maybe it wouldn't sound exactly like that … but you get the picture. People, all people, respond to vision, inspiration, and clarity.

Consulting in the dental field, I have seen leaders on both sides of the effectiveness scale. I've had the privilege to work with some extraordinary leaders and personally experience what the hand of leadership genius can do. Were these people born with these skills or can they be taught and learned? I believe they can. Here are common traits I find in great leaders:

To thine own self be true. While you can learn from great leaders, you must be true to yourself. We all have different styles of leadership and some natural instincts. Some are naturally charismatic but many are quiet, humble, and yet powerfully effective. Being authentic is always the most effective.

Get clear. Leaders must have a crystal-clear vision of what they are creating. I know you've heard this before but it really is true. If you cannot clearly articulate your vision to others, they will follow their own paths. Once you're clear, you must ask each individual for their commitment to accomplishing the dream. Be specific about their role, what commitment will mean, and anticipated rewards. Don't expect them to care about the business the same way you do, but do expect them to be dedicated to, excited about, and in alignment with the vision. In the movie "Miracle," the coach of the Olympic hockey team said, "I'm not looking for the best players … I'm looking for the right players." Get the right players aligned with your vision and you'll have an unstoppable team.

Give it to 'em straight. People appreciate straight talk from leaders. Hold your players accountable with great meetings, monitoring systems, and regular employee growth conferences. Set the bar high and give employees support to reach for that standard. Honest, immediate, and specific feedback is invaluable to team members. Don't expect perfection; do expect measurable improvement. Bill Parcells, the former coach of four NFL teams, says about leaders, "You have to be honest with people — brutally honest. You have to tell them the truth about their performance, you have to tell them face-to-face, and you have to tell them over and over again."

Inspire them. Let your employees know you believe in them. Many of the football players Bill Parcells coached say they remember one line he often said to them: "I believe in you more than you believe in you." People can do more than they think they can but inspiration is the key.

No mistakes; only lessons. Making a mistake is not the same as being a mistake! Great leaders are adaptive and continuously learn from their mistakes. They experiment with different ideas and don't view mistakes as disastrous but rather lessons in growth. Watching this in action encourages others to take risks too. So let them make mistakes. Making mistakes means growth is occurring. Making the same mistakes multiple times means there is no accountability, proper training and coaching, or leader willing to make the hard decisions.

Lead by example. Great leaders walk their talk. Never expect from an employee what you don't expect from yourself. Professionalism, honesty, commitment, and promptness are traits we must demonstrate if we are to receive them from our teams. Character is the core competency of leadership.

Break the habit of losing. Don't set your goals so large and so far out that people get discouraged. Set small goals and hit them. Don't focus solely on the ultimate goal. Get your team in the habit of winning. Celebrate and accentuate the positive at every opportunity and simultaneously refocus them on the next small goal to be attained.

Everyone can be a leader. Everyone should be a leader. From the newest on the job to the most seasoned, everyone can lead others from wherever they are. Delegate and develop the leadership skills of everyone on your team.

What's the end of the story? Did they win? Well, that depends on your definition of winning. At the awards ceremony that evening, out of 21 youth orchestras, Miss Lee accepted a respectable third-place finish on behalf of the small, underfunded, underdog group of young musicians ... with tears of pride in her eyes. My niece, Carrie, now a self-sufficient 25-year-old, feels she received some "first place" lessons along with her third place medal. Lessons she now carries into her adult life about what is possible when a group of people align with a common vision, set high expectations for themselves and their teammates, work hard, and follow a strong, passionate leader.

Note: For a complimentary copy of Employee Growth Conference System, send an e-mail to info@KatherineEitel.com with "Employee Growth Conference System" in the subject line.

Katherine Eitel is creator of The Lioness Principle and founder of Lioness Learning, a revolutionary training company that helps dental and health-care professionals access and harness intuitive leadership, instinctive greatness, and nonscripted communication skills. The Lion Camp Leadership Experience at the San Diego Wild Animal Park is a retreat for health-care teams nationwide. Visit www.KatherineEitel.com or contact Eitel at (800) 595-7060.

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