In the last couple of weeks, I've heard jazz friends talking about 'woodshedding.' It's jazz lingo for practicing. But it has a particular connotation that I'd like to highlight in this ezine.
Paul Klemperer, a Texas-based sax player and teacher, describes the woodshed as "the place where you work out the techniques that form the foundation of your improvisational ability." He then expands on the dynamic:
The term woodshedding in jazz means more than just practicing. It is a recognition of the need to sequester oneself and dig into the hard mechanics of the music before you can come back and play with a group in public. There's something philosophical, almost religious, about the term. The musical treasures of jazz are not easily accessed. You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on the music and your instrument, before you can unlock the treasure chest.
At the same time, woodshedding is a process of demystifying the music. The amazing solo, the intricate bebop melody, the complex rhythmic pattern, can be learned, if one is patient. It is a humbling but necessary chore, like chopping wood before you can start the fire. The term woodshedding, like the term "axe" (slang for your musical instrument), evokes images of rural, rootsy beginnings. It is a reminder, conscious or not, of the deep roots jazz has in the blues, gospel, and the merging of African and European musical traditions under slavery.
I found myself wondering, this month, what 'woodshedding' would look like for not-for-profit leaders. Remember, I think leadership is a matter of influence rather than position. You can energize your organization by generating a positive VIBE from any position.
Here are three aspects of the 'hard mechanics' of leadership that I think worthy of focused consideration and practice. Let's call them substance, sound, and space. They all relate to the 'hard mechanics' of convening conversations that will inspire, engage, and support your colleagues in collaborating for your common cause.
The substance of what you have to say
Jazz musicians pay attention, first and foremost, to the melody that they are playing. They are listening for or composing a story that taps into the depths of both human suffering and resilience. Their music combines a brutal realism about the challenging dynamics of human relationships with a robust resilience in overcoming the worst that life can throw at them. What they have to say in their stories is filled with affirmations of the dignity and worth of human beings. It is filled with hope for human beings. It is, quite simply and clearly, inspiring.
The words you compose in your conversations are rooted in a story as well. They express a set of assumptions that you hold about how the world works and how you are working in it. This story comes through in everything you say. If you have composed a positive story, appropriated it deeply enough to be true to it most times you speak (you'll never be perfect with this!), and trust in its benefit enough to invite others to join in the journey to a common good, then you will be a positive influence. Your substance will be inspiring.
So, practice your story line.
The sound of what you have to say
Jazz musicians 'shed' to hone their sound. They imitate to learn the 'hard mechanics' of their instrument, then appropriate and innovate with the voice that is uniquely theirs in the community of voices that is jazz. When they have gained confidence in their own sound as a contribution to the tradition of sounds that make up jazz, they innovate and take the tradition places it has never been before.
Leadership influence rides on the sound of our voices. I suspect most leaders don't pay a lot of attention to that. But our ears are finely tuned to the attitudes behind the sounds. If our voices are harsh, domineering, or dismissive, they will push people away and encourage them to underfunction in the enterprise. If our voices are calm, curious and appreciative, they will invite people into the enterprise and engage their passions and gifts in serving the common good.
So, hone your tone.
The space to 'shed'
Woodsheds are usually out back, distant from other buildings. They are places you can be alone, make mistakes (lots of them), learn from them, and fine-tune the substance and sound that will enable you to use your voice to generate a valuable vibe in all your conversations.
This may seem a bit weird, but I think the bathroom can be such a 'shed.' It's private. There's a mirror to reflect what you are doing. Being small, the acoustics help you hear your voice clearly. While you are 'shedding,' wherever your private place may be, pay particular attention to how your voice is striking your instincts, your emotions, and your intellect. It's the integration of all those dimensions of our awareness that creates a positive connection.
Wherever your shed is, appreciate this safe space to patiently practice 'the hard mechanics' of your leadership voice, honing the values that its vibe can create.
"A humbling but necessary chore"
I love this phrase in Klemperer's description of the woodshed. None of us likes to be humbled, but it is a crucial step in the continual improvement in leadership that our organizations deserve.
So, find your shed and start practicing your conversations.