Making Room for Leadership
I was in Washington DC last week, waiting for the cherry blossoms to bloom. Spring has inspired me to write again, thinking about rebirth and opportunities for change. I recently lost a strong teacher in the el Sistema program in Durham, NC that I run, called KidZNotes. She was from Venezuela, had the authentic experience of growing up in el Sistema there, and was well liked and respected by her colleagues.
When she decided to suddenly step down, I thought we were in for a train wreck. However, in the coming weeks as I scrambled to make ends meet, I was pleasantly surprised by who stepped in when she left. Where she had been a big personality and influence, I was surprised to learn that there were 4 or 5 people on our team who were absolutely ready to contribute to fill that void, and to make it their own. Where there had been one overarching idea, now there are 5 fresh perspectives, each new person contributing to solving problems and adding innovative ideas to advancing our work.
Despite my own past experience of being characterized as “aggressively ambitious” for having to push my way through at work and like a seedling, forcing space for the room I needed to sprout and grow, I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t created room for my own team members to become leaders in their own right. Good employees constantly seek a path of personal and professional advancement, and there always needs to be a place for them to go. I’ve read and thought a lot about leading a team, encouraging each person on my “bus” (read Jim Collins’ Good to Great) to find their strengths and inspire others to excel as an interconnected web. Leading from behind is an idea that’s been mocked in politics as “following,” but in my team it’s been hugely beneficial. Not only are there new ideas and new energy filling the space where my teacher stepped down, but there’s also room to grow for those new ideas.
In el Sistema, even at the professional levels, the orchestra members rotate chairs. There are rotating principals, and each musician sits in a new chair every concert cycle. As students, they rotate nearly every piece for every concert, and as professionals, they use rotation as a sound-development opportunity, creating a cohesive sound throughout the orchestra, with every player learning how to play into every other player they sit with. Listening becomes a highly developed skill, and new people are put in leadership positions on a regular basis. Leading from every chair takes on a new meaning, when you put your leaders literally in every chair of the orchestra.
Noticing our new space for leadership has inspired me to consider the potential and trajectory for every member of our team. I’ve imagined inviting each member to consider personalizing their professional development, and I’ve imagined opening up our projects each year, (concerts, competitions, auditions, etc.) inviting team members to “bid” on projects that match their interest and skills paired with our needs. This system of rotating leadership responsibilities through project opportunities catered to each team member’s strengths could create a much stronger team across the ranks, and allow each member to shine and be recognized by their colleagues. Like rotating chairs in the el Sistema orchestras, each member of my team could be principals.
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