Recently, I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, with my family. I discovered there that for a few thousand dollars I could bring my staff to a Land Rover obstacle course and learn about leadership by overcoming the challenges of rugged terrain. I thought about signing up, but then several catastrophic scenarios flashed before my eyes. I wasn’t sure I could explain my motives to the Board of Deacons. All of a sudden it didn’t sound like such a wise investment of time or money.
I suppose high-priced obstacle courses have a role to play in the world of leadership development, but sometimes all we have to do is pay attention to what’s going on around us.
Last summer I dropped my son off at a music day camp, Camp Oonie-Coonie-Cha. I quickly realized this was not the kind of place where you simply pull up to the curb, open the car door, watch your child scurry into the building and drive off. Every morning begins with a musical prelude of sorts. Many parents stay to see the show. I stayed, and as it turns out, I got a lesson in leadership, too.
From the moment the singing started, I was completely in awe of the four gifted teachers and their ability to mesmerize fifty preschool and kindergarteners. Using their perfectly pitched voices and an acoustic guitar or a set of spoons, these women belted out lively melodies in beautiful four-part harmony. They instantly captivated some of the busiest people on the planet. The teachers were obviously well-versed in musical techniques, but that’s not where they started with the children. They started with enthusiasm. And it worked.
Enthusiasm connects us with those whom we lead. I recently shot a video as part of a DVD project at our church. The videographer was quick to point out that in order to communicate effectively on video you have to express yourself in a way that may feel over the top emotionally. You have to be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is the key to connecting with people’s hearts. Leaders who connect with the heart can motivate people and organizations to move toward a common goal.
Learn to improvise. We like everything to go as we planned, but I continue to see that plans rarely go as exactly as planned. One morning at Camp Oonie-Coonie-Cha one of the teachers stepped up to lead the group in songs. Judging by how she introduced the song and the look of anticipation on the other teachers’ faces, I guessed that they did not know the song she was about to sing.
The singing started and the other teachers found their place in the song. The harmonies blended and before long they were each adding their own twist to a song they just learned. It was wonderful to watch the rhythmic give and take as each voice added rich texture to the song.
We create budgets, develop strategic plans and invite people to serve. It is nice when everything falls into place, but leaders must be able to improvise. Improvisation is not the ability to make stuff up as you go along. It is the capacity to take what you’ve been given and make it better.
Give yourself away. The teachers at Camp Oonie-Coonie-Cha impressed me with their generosity. They had a genuine desire to give something away every day. The teachers gave away more than musical training. They gave away their love for music. They gave away the messages in the music.
Almost a year later, one of the songs continues to ring in my head. It’s a South African tune: Bambalela, which means, “Never give up.” The other day at breakfast my son said, “Dad, sometimes when I am at school and something is hard I just tell myself, ‘Never give up’.”
Perhaps a question leaders should ask regularly is, “What am I giving away to others?”
If I can ever get past the image of our church custodian driving a Land Rover with the minister of music and me being tossed around in the backseat, I might give the top-dollar leadership training a try. Until then, I’ll try to remember what I learned from Camp Oonie-Coonie-Cha and I’ll keep singing “Bambalela”.
Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.