Learning New Leadership Skills: Why it’s like learning piano

For two weeks I have been working on mastering the intro to “Bridge over Troubled Water” on the piano. I am not a great piano player, but I enjoy the learning process. You know, the process that takes you from nobody recognizing what you are playing, to “Oh, you are playing that Simon and Garfunkel Song!” More importantly, it’s the feeling when something changes inside me. I get the flow of the song, see what it can do, and smile while playing.

It’s a lot like learning new leadership and coaching skills. When you first change your approach and start asking your team problem-solving questions instead of what to do, it will sound awkward and nothing like the smooth interchange you had in mind. You feel strange, the person in front of you feels strange, and you feel insecure. A nagging voice in your head questions you: “I hope I can ask the ‘right’ question,” or, “I wonder if they will get to the ‘right’ answer.” Once you let go of those thoughts, things will start clicking into place.

Lessons from my piano teacher

Joel is fabulous piano teacher. He is very patient with me and gives me the songs in bite-sized pieces. He does this because he is transcribing the music as he goes along, but I know it’s also his way of not giving me the entire elephant to eat. Here are some lessons he taught me:

It’s better to practice 10 minutes every day than an hour once a week

It’s true. When I practice 10 minutes every day (or twice a day on a good day), I build on what I learned the previous time. What seemed difficult the first time feels easier. During those 10 minutes I focus on only part of the song and not the entire song. That sounds obvious, but I keep practicing the part I have troubles with, until it doesn’t seem as hard. When practicing your leadership skills coaching, which part do you want to concentrate on and “practice” for 10 minutes every day? Is it better listening, and not interrupting the person or finishing their sentence? Is it to resist reacting when something irritates you? Pick one and focus on it for a week.

Keep going when you hit the wrong notes

Instead of stopping when I play the wrong notes, Joel urges me to keep going but make a mental note of what I want to change next time. When I try it, I notice my brain is calmer the next time I play the section. I am able to think ahead to the passage instead of stopping in fear of hitting the wrong notes. Slowly but surely I anticipate the notes and get ready for them, rather than worry about the “trouble ahead.” When you come face to face with your bad habit or behaviour you want to change, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, take a mental note and focus on what you want it to be next time. Focus on that new behaviour instead of tripping over what you want to avoid

Don’t just play within the bars, play across the bars

It’s easy to practice one bar at a time. It’s a defined piece, there is a beginning and an end, and it gives me great satisfaction to check off that bar when I master it. Joel often reminds me to always practice the transition from one bar to the next or the song will sound choppy. As you practice within your focus areas of leadership and coaching, what are the important transitions? These areas likely show up between other parts of your life as well. Become aware of those areas and practice across them.

Once you know how to play the song, feel it and make it yours

This last part is the hardest part for me. Joel urges me to close my eyes and “feel” the song. This stretches me. Suddenly there is no “right” way to play and I am invited to put myself into the song. When I do, there is another level to my playing and it feels different. It’s the same with leadership and coaching. Once you put yourself into it − your values, sense of humour, and generosity − your leadership and coaching will go to a new level. You will feel it and so will the people around you. It will become YOUR leadership style.

That’s why I take piano lessons. I wonder what lessons I will learn from my new guitar teacher…

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