We have observed before that leadership lessons can be found in the most unexpected places, and a recent meet-up with a good friend is another wonderful example of this. Despite not seeing each other for around ten years, when I saw Dom Neary a couple of weeks ago, we clicked straight back into our friendship as if we’d never been apart and spent a brilliant evening catching up. It was when he was describing his experience playing in a band that something he said resonated deep within me. This kept coming back to me day after day and I feel it perfectly illustrates one of the most critical leadership lessons: the importance of creating an ego-free zone.

Ever since I have known him, Dom has been a keyboard player.  Today, he also helps others with their music as a sound engineer, as well as jumping in as ‘support on keys’ when required.  In addition, he is part of a four-piece band which hosts a regular Tuesday night jam session in Edinburgh where the whole set is improvised from start to finish. He and his colleagues begin by performing a couple of tunes before curating a series of ‘scratch bands’ from the assembled group of musicians over the remainder of the evening, each of whom gets the chance to perform two numbers.

Hearing him talk about these weekly nights of musical improvisation – when there is absolutely no planning or rehearsal, just a ‘make it up as we go along’ vibe – was so inspiring and exciting, as I could see and hear the delight and passion as he recounted the stories and his learning. He observed that what appears to make this night so successful and popular with Edinburgh musicians is that every performer plays with full respect for others in an ego-free zone. He quoted from The Spirit of Music by Victor Wooten, a renowned bass player, who Dom feels succinctly summarises what seems to be at work during these evenings of creation:

“Musicians often jam with the intention of showing how good they are, waiting for their chance to solo. These musicians played as if they wanted to show how good everyone else sounded. They listened and made room for each other.”

Dom and his colleagues have identified the secret to success in these sessions as “ban any ego and then play such that the others shine”. When achieved, this collective act of selflessness, of lifting each other up rather than seeking individual attention, has the miraculous effect of ensuring that every member of the band plays at their very best.

If you’re familiar with the Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, Nobody poem, it seems to me that what Dom and the band have learned how to achieve is the direct opposite. Rather than everybody relying on somebody to do what needs doing (which means nobody does it), when the band jams they all willingly take part in a kind of collective consciousness, where everyone plays for the benefit of others.

The musicians that attend these jam nights have a wide range of abilities and bring along an eclectic assortment of instruments but, due to the extraordinarily supportive atmosphere and shared purpose, the disparate group becomes a harmonious team, where everyone can contribute and each person is encouraged to stretch themselves in a judgement-free environment.

When a leader takes the same approach to leading a team – creating an ego-free zone and putting all their energy into “playing to help the team members shine” – it too enables everyone to play to the very best of their ability.

The idea that work can also be play and a life-enhancing experience, is another leadership lesson to remember. When leaders can get into this mindset, put aside their ego and make space for their team to thrive, anything is possible. We may not be making music, but we can all unlock the door to an ego-free zone which lifts all those around us.

And don’t be in any doubt about what happens if someone brings their ego to the fore. As Dom observed, if a musician persistently puts themselves front and centre, the result is typically a far inferior overall performance from everyone.

What more could you be doing as a leader to create and sustain an ego-free zone? If you need our support, please get in touch.

And if you find yourself in Edinburgh on a Tuesday evening, please check out The Underdog Jam at the Doghouse pubon Clerk Street in Newington, but leave your ego at the door!

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