Friday, December 21, 2007

Out with the Lame, In with the Brave

At the end of an incredible busy stretch of weeks, I was pushing laundry and suddenly realized something very important as a new year comes on.

It feels as though I'm dealing with a lot of genuinely primitive behavior lately. That can weigh a person down and I allow it to waste a lot of my time. But this evening as I reflected on some of the amazing personal and professional feats pulled off just in the last six days, let alone the last 12 months, I remembered that about a week ago, I was so touched by some of the everyday bravery I witnessed in my work and in my personal life that I was actually moved to tears. How did I forget that?

As I sat around a dinner table this evening together with the amazing people I work with, we recounted some of the achievements we shared this year. I don't really feel that we achieved them, but we brought to bear the talent of individuals who achieved truly astonishing things.

One example is this man, who just about a year ago called very early one morning to talk about the process we were about to engage him in. He confessed that he'd probably need no fewer than nine months to extricate himself from his then-current post. The experience of coaching someone through that fear and uncertainty and then watch them do this is why I work so hard. That brave man, with the help of incredible volunteers and staff and dedicated, talented musicians, saved an orchestra. Period. Give a listen.

Worth it.

Another example is a recent recruit to what turns out to be a deeply troubled institution that has been actually close to missing payroll. (This is not an unusual situation for some orchestras, sadly.) Did this person turn tail? Back out of an agreement? Try to manipulate the facts and act autocratically and rob Peter to pay Paul, turning a knife in someone's back all the while smiling sweetly? As some of my friends might say, "Oh, HELL to the NO, baby." This person rolled up his sleeves, directly engaged his staff and board and musicians, and now ALL of them are getting down to the business of saving this orchestra. I can't repeat what he shared with his constituencies but I can tell you I was ready to roll my sleeves up, too.

In the wings is another extraordinary young leader. She is special to me because I know she is the future, and I and the person I work for on these assignments have both told her this. Because it's true. I have watched this person grow in her role as a general manager. Now she is ready to take on the leadership of an organization. She is smart and can wrap her head around any form of data she's presented with. She also cares deeply about the heart and soul of the institution. She and her husband are both musicians, so she never gets too far from what grounded her vision in the first place.

Another favorite candidate calls herself a "cultural warrior." She really is, and she's become something of a role model for me. We enjoy sharing thoughts of the day; once, when she was scheduled to interview with a client who was presenting Kool and the Gang, we determined that the appropriate attire might have to include platforms. She too has been in some tremendously sticky situations and pulled institutions out of the mud.

These are examples of something you don't see every day. Sometimes entire weeks go by without seeing it. It's called leadership, and I get to see it quite a bit. And that's why I do my job, and why I love it.

When I step outside my personal situation and reflect on these encounters I've had, I realize that sometimes the work I contribute to in a very meaningful way can save institutions. America the Pinheaded would be nothing but a bleak wasteland without arts and culture. We need museums, orchestras, dance companies, opera companies, bluegrass festivals, craftsmans guilds, places like Augusta and Berea and Appelshop. The arts make us whole. At the most organic level, my personal mission is that connecting people to traditional and bluegrass music is one of the most basic ways to present individuals with an opportunity to make music, understand American history, and participate in cultural preservation, social engagement, economic development, and personal development. Someday, when all my other work is done, I hope I can help advance this notion even further. There are lots of talented leaders across all sorts of genres already fairly well engaged in this concept, and I hope that at some future point I will be able to make it easier, more effective, more engaging.

There really are only a handful of people and companies that do what I do as well as our firm does it. So quite frankly, I simply am too busy to entertain the kind of petty bullshit I put up with on a weekly, bi-weekly, semi-weekly, or otherwise all-too-regular basis from other adults who cannot seem to grasp the notion that our job is to work together to decrease the vulnerability of the young people in our COLLECTIVE CARE. If I haven't gotten that notion across by now, I suppose I'll have to delegate it. It's frustrating, because almost without exception I have no experience with some of the stuff I encounter. I am just unaccustomed to it. Evidently the notion that we're all adults who can and should work cooperatively needs to be more than an assumption of mine. It needs to be an expectation, one that will be fulfilled without exception -- hopefully collaboratively.

So I guess I need to take an example from the people I've had the extraordinarily good fortune to learn from this year. All our little company did was find these individuals and bring out from within them their best leadership skills. If I can do that for people I just met, I suppose I should be able to figure out a way to achieve that not only for myself but within my children and all the people closest to them. My children, and all children, deserve the best, most supportive, most engaging environments in which to realize their own potential to do great things, whether it's delivering mail or picking tunes or running the country or conducting groundbreaking research.

Earlier this week my daughter, who is seven, somehow got her hands on my iPod. She grew fairly and genuinely fixated on this tune performed by Bruce Molsky. It's called, "We'll All Go To Heaven When The Devil Goes Blind." I'd say that's probably true, if you think of the devil as some primal reactionary trait that interferes with an individual's ability to collaborate, and reduces that person instead to the least productive form of competitive behavior. Here's hoping that old devil does go blind so that we can enjoy the heaven of possibilities that await us all in the creative future.


At December 22, 2007 9:27 AM, Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

Mando, Thank you for the inspirational words. When your heart has been stomped on, the natural reflex is to close up and shut down, even if that is contrary to who you are as a person. It takes so much more courage to keep your heart open, knowing that it's going to get stomped on again someday. Kudos to you for finding such a wonderful place to work, for putting your gifts to good use recognizing the brilliance in others and making this world a better place. You're right, it is good to remember this when other people's shadows come calling. Remember, put away the matches and pull out the matador cape. Let the raging bull rage on by. Maybe it will stop if the bull realizes that they'll get no reaction out of you?

Merry New Year my dear friend, Merry New Year!


At December 22, 2007 7:56 PM, Blogger DrDon said...

Mando - It sounds cliche but in everyday life there are so many people who just soldier on through difficult odds and in seemingly impossible situations. So many people we put on pedastals have really accomplished very little in human terms. It's nice that you've taken time to reflect on people who are quietly yet truly making a difference.

At December 22, 2007 8:42 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

A merry new year to you, Shameless! Folks like the ones I've described are real matadors.

Doc, thanks. I do have the privilege of knowing a lot of unsung heroes. I even named my Christmas tree, Harold, after a musician in one of the orchestras we worked for this year.

Of course, this is not to say we don't see plenty of drama dweebs in my business. It is, after all, the arts, for heaven's sake. But it doesn't take long to weed out their real story through probing them and touching base with our little network. The real rising stars are always too busy working to get into any trouble.


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