Don’t be like Elvis, be like a wedding singer!
What makes a great wedding singer? It starts with having a broad repertoire that can be performed on key and with passion.
To be a success at a wedding party, a singer needs to be able to flexibly switch between a variety of songs and styles, at the one moment being a virtual Celine Dion, singing The Power of Love, while at the next moment being Bono, singing One. And when Uncle Charley shouts 'can you do Elvis?', the successful wedding singer will be able to start shaking those hips, belting out Blue Suede Shoes. Yet, really good performers won’t only count on their existing repertoire, but will add new material depending on the wedding audience they need to entertain. It might be necessary to acquire some rapping skills to connect with the younger audience or play some Mariachi to appeal to the bride’s family. The better the wedding singer understands the audience and responds to it, the bigger the chance of success.
With a wink, this could be called singer agility and fundamentally it doesn’t differ much from leadership agility. The three core characteristics they both share are flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness. Flexibility is the capacity to switch between behaviors and not be rigidly stuck in one particular style. To be flexible, a person needs to have a broad repertoire of potential ‘tunes’ and the ability to smoothly switch between them. So, as an agile singer can switch between opera and rock music, like Freddy Mercury was good at doing, an agile leader also needs to be able to switch styles, for example changing over from being challenging to being encouraging. My co-author, Ronald Meijers, and I call this leadership style flexibility – having easy access to a broad repertoire of leadership behaviors.
As the successful wedding singer sometimes needs to learn to rap or sing in Spanish, so too do leaders need to learn new styles. This is what we call leadership style adaptability – the capacity to acquire and master new leadership styles, to further strengthen the existing repertoire. Singers will immediately tell you that it is very difficult to learn new musical styles, because the underlying skills are different and the existing style is 'in the way'. The same is true for leaders, who have developed a particular competence set and feel comfortable employing their existing range of styles. Learning new styles means building new skills and often behaving in ways opposite to what they were used to. This is uncomfortable, stressful and exhausting. Yet, to be adaptable, they need to open up and absorb the different ‘beat’ of the new style and be willing to practice hard to truly master it.
Finally, to be a success, this flexibility and adaptability should be in response to the needs of the audience. Both singers and leaders need to understand the people they are trying to influence and quickly adjust their style to what is required. This is what we call leadership style responsiveness – the capacity to be acutely aware of the environment in which they are performing and rapidly react to it. For singers this means sensing when to play a slow song and when to speed things up; when to ignore Uncle Charley and when it is the right moment to let the father-in-law sing. For leaders responsiveness means judging the situation and swiftly adjusting their leadership style to match, either by flexibly accessing an existing style or nimbly learning a new one.
Tarred and feathered
Can you be a good wedding singer if all you know are a few Elvis songs, which you sing irrespective of who is in the audience? In our new book, Leadership Agility: Developing Your Repertoire of Leadership Styles, we argue that this limited repertoire would make you a ‘one trick pony’ – you might be successful under very specific circumstances, but in all other situations you would fail. Some audiences might politely clap even though the mood had gone flat, but at a biker wedding you might run the risk of being tarred and feathered. For leaders, the same is true if you have a fixed style repertoire that you play over and over again – in some circumstances it might just work, but in all other cases there will be a misfit. It is for this reason that we believe that leaders need to be agile – have the capacity to rapidly and flexibly switch between leadership styles, and adaptively master new leadership styles, in response to the people and situation they want to influence.
So, how agile are you as a leader? If you want to map your repertoire and know more about the twenty leadership styles that you can potentially master, then take a look at our book, or download our App for tablets, called Leadership LEAP. Of course, you can also come to Tias to further develop your leadership repertoire. As for your singing agility, I’ll leave that up to the people sharing your shower to judge.
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