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Leadership & Learning: Keeping the Beat

By Bill Hester

Bill HesterI’ve always wanted to play the drums. So, early last year I invested in a drum kit, found an amazing teacher, and started. As I have been a working musician for years, I’ll confess I had always thought that playing drums would be dead easy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was totally unprepared for the challenge of willing four different limbs to operate independently.

As well as getting to know the instrument, I have also been immersing myself in drum history and learning about the legends of the instrument. Now, names like Buddy Rich and Tommy Igoe are starting to mean something to me.

More passion than skills

Drum Kit

One great drummer and educator, John Riley, has caught my attention. John talks about a common complaint he hears among aspiring drummers, who bemoan that they’ll never be able to play as well as their idols because they aren’t as gifted.

John asks, “What’s the gift that you think they have that you don’t?”

He goes on to explain that, yes, some people are born with superior reflexes or perfect pitch. But those things are meaningless if they aren’t cultivated.

The gift our idols possess is more a matter of disposition than physical attributes. The gifted are the lucky few who have found something they are so passionate about that they are compelled to investigate it, whether anyone else is interested or not. Their temperament allows them to spend countless hours and years refining their craft by practicing the things they can’t do, simply because practice is one of the things they find most enjoyable in life. That, John says, is the gift.

Leadership—like drumming—requires practice and time

The excellent advice John had shared got me thinking about what it takes to be a gifted leader. Like a drummer, a leader sets the tempo, keeps everyone aligned, and—when he or she is really good—inspires us to do great things.

We also know that great leaders aren’t born. Instead, it takes a lifetime of learning to really excel as a leader. Many of my clients are dedicated to facilitating this learning within their organizations, and I often see their attention primarily focused on classroom or virtual classroom events. Just as with my own bimonthly drum lessons, these facilitated sessions are incredibly important in opening leaders’ eyes to new techniques, eliminating bad habits, discussing challenges, getting feedback, and trying new behaviors on for size.

But, just as with my development as a drummer, the real learning takes place in between the lessons. Great leadership requires an incredible amount of practice and, of course, the passion to be willing to commit to that practice. While some leaders will work this out for themselves, there are many things that corporate L&D functions can do to help promote practice and turn learning into real skill.

For example, though multi-day programs are an efficient use of time, I sometimes liken them to a four-day music lesson. They don’t provide the opportunity for the daily repetition needed to turn nascent behaviors into habits. Instead, consider other approaches to promote real behavior change:

  • Splitting classroom sessions over time can give leaders time to try out new behaviours, gain some early wins, and come back to talk about what worked and what didn’t.
  • Creating a community of practice (via alumni groups) is great way of keeping new skills top of mind, and encouraging leaders to practice and share their experiences.
  • Learning from one another via co-development can help define a common leadership culture, and a sense of shared expectation around the minimum standards of behaviour.
  • And, of course, involving the developing leaders managers in a meaningful way is an incredibly powerful (but still under-used) lever to reinforce and sustain the learning.

Of course these things don’t just happen automatically, and today I am seeing some of the world’s most iconic companies placing great emphasis on carefully designed “learning journeys” that intentionally surround the “formal” learning moments with a connective tissue of diagnosis, discussion, practice, feedback, and managerial support. As a result, these companies are growing their own “gifted” leaders who are ready to take their businesses forward.

I will never be a great drummer, but I do know that just as with leadership, learning the right things first and then practising them every day will help me build competence and confidence.

I take Grade 5 in the summer—wish me luck!

Bill Hester is a Managing Consultant in DDI’s London office. Outside of work, he cultivates his passion for recording original music, producing and performing live with his band.

Posted: 09 Mar, 2017,

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