by Steve Adubato, PhD

Last week, I wrote about the traits of an “exceptional leader”. One of the things I’ve learned after nearly two decades of writing, teaching and talking about the subjects of leadership and communication 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 movie “School of Rock”. In the movie, for the longest time, 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 a selfish communicator. 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.

For weeks, Dewey was apathetic, uninspiring and simply sat in front of the class reading material that had nothing to do with the kids or their learning. Then, a lightening bolt hit him when he saw the kids practicing in a classical music class. While many of the students were talented, they seemed uninspired. Then it hit him. Mr. Schneebly, or “Mr. S” as he 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 went to work teaching, mentoring and encouraging 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 and communication seminars in which Mr. S does a variety of things to demonstrate exceptional leadership. As usual, they are all about the way he is communicating. 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 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 turns and 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 lessons in “School of Rock” is realizing that all of us, whether we are 10-year-old kids or 45-year-old middle managers, want to “be in the band.” Not necessarily 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.

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, personal and emotional level. That’s what exceptional teachers do, and that is no different than what the best leaders do. Pretty simple, isn’t it?