By Steve Adubato, PhD
One of the things I’ve learned after two decades of writing, teaching and talking about leadership is that some of the best lessons can come from the most unlikely sources. When people talk about great leaders, they often reference corporate giants, historical political figures or the Vince Lombardi’s of the sports world.
But, consider the case of Jack Black, the wildly comedic actor, who played Dewey Finn in the hit movie “School of Rock.” In the movie, the historically lazy and under-achieving Dewey had been obsessed with the idea of putting together a rock band that would compete in the “Battle of the Bands.” He was thrown out of his own band for being a bad team player, not to mention selfish and narcissistic. Dewey was no leader. Later, he would take on a job as a substitute teacher (by stealing his friend’s name and identity—Ned Schneebly) in order to raise enough money to create his own band. (After being thrown out of his original band for not being a “team player.”)
For weeks, as a fake substitute teacher, Dewey was apathetic, uninspiring and simply sat in front of the class reading comic books while students sat there bored to tears. Then, a lightning bolt hit Dewey when he saw his students practicing in a classical music class. While many of the students were musically talented, they seemed uninspired. Then it hit him. Mr. Schneebly, or “Mr. S” as Dewey was called by his students, decided to create a “class project” in which the students would comprise the band that would compete in the upcoming “Battle of the Bands.” He gave everyone in the class a role to in the band.
He went to work teaching, mentoring and yes, leading, the students to not just learn how to play “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, but got them excited about doing it. If you’ve never seen the movie, do yourself a favor and rent it. I use the scene in many leadership seminars in which Mr. S does a variety of things to demonstrate exceptional leadership. As usual, they are all about the way he is motivating and inspiring the students to want to be a part of something meaningful—something fun. He praises some of the quietest kids, and shows others how to play instruments they’ve never played before—doing so with great enthusiasm, passion and a smile on his face.
Finally, he tells the kids selected to be in the band that they are ready to compete and that the rest of them should sit back and “enjoy the magic of rock.” Just then, one of the kids who was a quiet spectator, asked; “So, we are not in the band Mr. S?” Instinctively, the substitute teacher turned-engaged-leader says; “Just because you are not in the band, doesn’t mean you are not IN the band. We need back up singers… who can sing?” A few kids raise their hands. Many are exceptional singers while some are just okay, but all of them get encouragement from their teacher. Then he says, we are going to find a job for everyone, because all of you are going to “be in the band.”
One of the biggest leadership lessons in “School of Rock” is realizing that all of us whether we are a 10-year-old kid or 45-year-old middle manager, want to “be in the band.” Not necessarily in an actual band, but we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Even those who are sitting on the sidelines in offices everywhere still want to “be in the band”, but need to be invited to do so in a supportive and enthusiastic fashion. Great leaders understand that even those who don’t speak up and volunteer on a regular basis for team projects or assignments need to be encouraged—sometimes challenged—to step up and participate and become “part of the band.”
An important lesson to remember is that sometimes it is YOUR responsibility as the leader to not just be responsive to the desires of team members to actively participate—but to proactively call them out—even if they don’t ask or if say they are “uncomfortable” participating or even leading a team project. Great leaders create a safe environment for team members to take risks and try new things. They also remind team members that everyone has the potential to actually lead and not just simply participate. But the first step is making sure we create a place in “the band” for all our people—the way Jack Black did in “School of Rock.”
It is all about knowing your people and what motivates them as individuals, including the need to be a part of something, be it a band or a new company team taking on a daunting challenge. It all comes down to communicating and connecting with people on a deeper, more personal level. That’s what exceptional teachers do, which is very similar to what the best leaders do. Pretty simple, isn’t it?