Piano Playing and Leadership

Hands playing piano

For those of you who know me, you know that I’ve always wanted to play the piano. If ever there was an instrument that I loved, it was the piano. I loved the way a person, with just two hands, could create an orchestra. What intrigued me even more was the way a musician’s eyes would close as they felt the music and played flawlessly. I wanted to be that person. I wanted to become one with the instrument.

Well about three years ago, a colleague and friend of mine offered her piano for free to whoever wanted it, and I was the first person to jump at the chance. Oh happy day! After getting the help that I needed, a gently used piano was in my home. I had one mission – I wanted my children to learn to play. You see, my husband played the piano, as well as other instruments, and I wanted him to teach our kids – music notes and all. Overtime, the kids learned a few songs and I listened. Occasionally, I’d play a tune here and there by ear. However, I was too scared to really learn to play because 1) I wasn’t sure that I could become really good as an adult (silly me). I’m 40 and I’ve never even learned music notes; and 2) I didn’t want my children to see me mess up. As much as I could lead and encourage others, I couldn’t lead and encourage myself to get over my fear and learn to play.

Fast forward to a few days ago and I finally played a song: one hand creating one melody on the black and white keys and the other hand creating a different melody at the other end of the piano. My brain was able to separate two distinct melodies and tell my hands what to play when. It was beautiful and exhilarating. I’m sure that a year from now I’ll say that it sounded horrible, but at this moment, the playing was spectacular! I actually screamed with joy when I finished. My daughter cheered and my husband and son clapped. They were so proud of me. It was literally a 48 second song, but I conquered my fear, practiced, and played. When I finished celebrating, I reflected on the past few years and I learned something. I realized how learning to play the piano, and all of the emotions that go along with it, is extremely similar to learning to lead. The only difference is that this time, I was leading myself.

There were five areas that I meandered through when learning to play and they very much remind me of what I experience when leading, especially in new situations:

Fear: As I stated earlier, I was afraid to even attempt to learn the piano. I was fearful of my own abilities (lack thereof) and I was scared to mess up in front of others. Much like leadership, one of the toughest parts is getting past our own insecurities and fear of not seeming competent in front of those who look to us for leading. In order to motivate, encourage, strategize, and take action, we’ve got acknowledge our fears and then find a way to deal with them in order to do what we need to do.

Trying it out: At some point, I had to just start playing and see what method worked best for me. Some days, my playing was really good, while other days were awful. My poor family! Eventually, I found what method of learning worked best for me (right now, I play by ear). Just as in leadership, we’ve sometimes got to try out a few styles before we find the one that is truly ours. Once you find what works for you, you’ll be able to confidently guide others (and yourself).

Practicing, progressing, failing, and practicing again: Failing is a part of leading and it is a part of my piano learning experience. Failing does not feel good at all, but it is still an opportunity to reflect, learn, and try again. Just like everything else, moving forward a little each day brings progress, no matter what. Practice your leadership skills, reflect on them, and change them when necessary. Accept that failure is inevitable, but it is not a hindrance.

Getting a cheer squad: My family members are my biggest cheerleaders when it comes to playing. You know why? Because they see me show up every day and give my time to learning. When I didn’t feel like practicing, I still showed up. When my hands were cramping, I took a break and then I returned to the piano. As a result, my family went from listening to me play from another room to encouraging me to play, to even recording my sessions to document my progress. Your direct reports will do the same thing (well, they may not record you). In leadership, it’s important to show up and be present. Doing so each day is inspiring to those around you, especially when times are tough.

Succeeding: As with all types of practice, you’ll eventually succeed and it will feel wonderful. Within leadership, you pour so much time into your staff, ideas, projects, customers, etc., and some days, it just doesn’t feel like anything is working. Oh, but when it does, the success is sweet. That success comes as a result of overcoming your fears; trying out new things; practicing, failing, and practicing some more; and having a support system.

My experience in learning to play the piano took me through everything I’ve felt and learned on my leadership journey. It’s never easy, some days are better than others, and each new challenge brings opportunity and a new set of fears. Whether you are attempting to lead yourself through new experiences or lead a team of people, no one is immune to these stages of leadership. But the point is to move past the fears (sometimes you can’t overcome them) and towards your vision. The things and people that you need to get there will come along.

Keep leading and be safe,

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