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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

What I Learned About Leadership at an Open Mic

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

It was a Tuesday evening when I arrived at the coffee shop in Dallas. The coffee shop was more like a fusion of a café and bar, and as the night moved on the space became more bar and less café. I had my cheap rental guitar with me, in its case. It wasn’t the best instrument. I was in Dallas for work, so it was either try to bring a guitar from home or figure it out when I got there. I chose the lazier option. Although the guitar sounded okay, it was harder to fret than what I was used to. I was waiting awkwardly to see how the sign-up sheet worked when I started to feel nervous.

Lesson 1: Goals should be realistic

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. –Zig Ziglar

Writing about this night isn’t something I was planning. When I finally decided to play an open mic and share my music with strangers, the decision was for me. But at the other end, I felt like I learned a little bit about myself. I learned a little bit about taking risks and about one of my favorite topics: vulnerability. So I decided to connect it back to my leadership coaching and share it with you.

The first lesson is about setting goals. I like to remind myself of the SMART framework for objectives: they should be simple enough to understand, measurable in outcome, appropriate to what you’re trying to accomplish, realistic yet challenging, and time-bound. The element that has the most weight for me is realistic yet challenging. Note that I’m talking about specific goals here, not a broader vision or dream. These can and should be bold and challenging! Forget realistic. My dream is to have other people hear and share my music. The goal that I set for myself to chip away at that dream was to record one full album of original music. And the first goal I set to getting there was to write three original songs and play them at an open mic.

The next time you think about the dreams you have, take the time to write down one related goal. One thing you could do that puts you on the path to realizing your dreams. Then think about the first step to getting there. That’s the first goal. IIt’s important that you make this goal realistic, because achieving it will mean so much. The goal is the first step that builds momentum toward the dream.

Lesson 2: Growth should be uncomfortable

Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong. –N. R. Narayana Murthy

Just because your goals are achievable doesn’t mean getting there will be easy. On the contrary, it should be hard. Except for unconditional love, nothing worth having is given freely. And most of us are lucky to find unconditional love from even one person in life, usually a parent. Partnership takes hard work, achievement demands sacrifice, and every goal comes with a measure of sweat or tears. It takes bravery to seek the things we don’t yet have.

The very first person who played at the Dallas open mic night was a seven-year-old boy. He crushed it. The open mic night was not his bold, audacious goal, it was Tuesday. For me, writing music was frustrating. The idea of playing that music for others was scary. And this was deep at the bottom of a long list of much more difficulty things that I and others are working toward. I found peace in constantly reminding myself of that. It’s difficult to keep perspective when we have so much to be thankful for. And it’s difficult to create opportunities to be uncomfortable when it’s so much easier to choose to be idle.

Take time to take stock of your blessings in life. Appreciate that others are working toward their own goals, wrestling with their own demons, even fighting for their basic rights. Keep perspective on where you are, and keep perspective on where you’re going. It’s a gift to struggle for a goal you want.

Lesson 3: Leaders should be whole people

True success, true happiness lies in freedom and fulfillment. –Dada Vaswani

The last lesson I took from my open mic night was about fulfillment. I won’t tell you how my songs went or how people reacted. That I’ll keep for me. But I will share that after my songs were done I went into the back hallway and pumped my fist. I felt a wave of fulfillment pass through me. It’s the difference between doing something you enjoy versus something that gives you joy.

When I trace back the moments that have meant the most in my life, they are often connected to growth. Growth is one of my personal values, and I encourage you to find and build on your own values. We can’t be authentic leaders unless we show up as our whole selves. And we can’t be our whole selves unless we devote time to things personally important. Whether it’s a value of family or connection or growth, you owe it to the people you lead to invest in yourself.

Do something for you. I challenge you to be brave.

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