Freddy was the first one to greet me on my new job fresh out of law school. I had been hired as the new Executive Director of a one-hundred year old, timeworn agency serving abused children in Los Angeles. Immediately, we became great buddies, and I saw in him one of the model employees for our organization: dedicated to doing his best at his job (janitor) and gentle and loving to children and staff alike.
For the annual staff holiday party, Freddy had agreed to be the master of ceremonies. I introduced him and then sat down. He began.
“Okay everyone, our first item on the agenda is a group sing. Miss Judy, will you join me at the microphone?”
I stood up, and someone in the back of the room started playing, “Oh Christmas Tree” on the piano. Freddy’s rich, deep bass voice boomed throughout the room as I stood next to him, quietly singing along. When he finished the first verse, he handed the microphone to me and said, “Your turn.”
I remember that moment as if it were seconds ago. There were 200 of my staff in the room, and I had presented in front of them many times, but at this moment I froze. Sing? A solo? Into a microphone? In front of everyone?
“Oh no,” I protested, awkwardly pushing the microphone away, all grace and dignity gone. “I don’t know the words. Let’s all sing.”
It’s not that I can’t carry a tune. I can and I love to sing. I’ve been singing in church choirs most of my life, but only in the back row of a large chorus and with loud accompaniment on piano or organ to hide behind when I missed a note. Singing by myself in front of 200 people? No way!
Thankfully, everyone joined in, and I sat back down. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, the party was over.
Thinking back on the event on my long drive home that night, I was distinctly uncomfortable. Never known as a shrinking violet, I had acted the opposite of how a leader should. By openly displaying my discomfort at being put on the spot and refusing the microphone, I missed the opportunity to demonstrate courage, to take a strategic risk as an example to my staff, who I was always challenging to take risks. Worse, I did it in situation where the only possible danger was my embarrassment about making a fool of myself with a poor vocal performance.
Singing with Power
I couldn’t shake the discomfort for days. Then I decided that such a situation would not happen again. I signed up for a class at UCLA called, “Singing with Power.” I learned on the first night a petite and fairly well known trainer of rock musicians taught the class. Her list of clients was long and impressive. She was 74 years old.
There were only eight of us who had signed up. I was the oldest by two decades. The other seven were barely in their early 20s (most of whom were hoping to become rock stars).
“Hello,” she said, at the appointed hour. “I’m Suzy Whatever-Her-Name-Was and you are going to learn to sing like rock stars. Stand up, please.”
We did. I thought this would be a good time to bolt, but she was standing in front of me before I could make a decision. She was holding several belts in her small hand. She handed me one and said, “Put this around your chest, six inches above your belly button.” She repeated this instruction with the seven other students. “Now, breathe so that you stretch the belt. One, two, three…breathe. Hold it (for a period that felt like forever). Exhale. Repeat.”
After ten long minutes, she was satisfied with our breathing. “Please sit down. Now repeat after me, ‘Mario, Mario, Mario, Wheresa my pizza.’”
We looked at each other.
“Are you deaf?” she said. “Repeat after me.”
Reluctantly, we recited the mantra. “Again,” she said. “And again. Now, louder. “ We emitted a slightly louder sound.
“Louder,“ she said. We complied, my stomach now in a gigantic knot.
“Now shout it,” she said in a booming voice. Some of us complied.
“Shout it from your belly until it reaches the opposite side of the room.”
By now there was extensive nervous giggling.
“This is NOT funny,” she said. “Are you here to learn or are you here to giggle? Now, shout it!”
Finally, the first class was over but not before assigning our homework.
“On the drive home, I want you to shout, Mario, Mario, as loud as you can—all the way home. Yes, other drivers might look at you funny but it will be dark soon and no one will know.”
Even as I write this, it’s embarrassing to reveal that I called out for pizza until I pulled in my driveway, grinning the whole time. I was beyond reluctant to go back for a second class, but the thought of making a fool of myself again in front of my staff took over.
Mario’s Pizza and Hallelujah
“Let’s hear it,” she said, before even saying hello. “Mario, Mario, Mario,” we hesitantly chorused, “wheresa my pizza?”
“I can’t hear you,” she said in a sing–song voice. In response, we nearly blasted her out of the room.
“There,” she said. “Didn’t that feel good? Now you are projecting. Now we’re going to sing, ‘Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.’ Is there anyone who doesn’t know the words?”
Not waiting for a response, she pulled out a pitch pipe. As soon as she blew the note, she pointed at me and said, “Sing!” Out of my mouth, projected at least halfway across the room, came the melody and lyrics of Michael rowing his vessel. I was stunned. While the sound was not wonderful, neither was it ear-wrenching–and to my amazement, no one laughed. I’d had no time to prepare or even refuse. I just sang—the whole first verse.
“That’s it,” she said. “Fantastic!”
My sense of accomplishment was stunning. My confidence in myself rose to new heights, not with the idea of ever singing another solo, but with the knowledge that I tried and survived and nothing bad happened. No one even giggled—at least not out loud.
Then again, no one would even think of laughing knowing that they would be next.
Prior to the next staff party, I suggested to Freddy that he and I do a duet. He slapped his leg with glee, and we started rehearsing in private. When the time came, he was up front with the mike. He invited me onto the stage and together we sang about Michael and his very seaworthy craft—followed by a standing ovation. The fact that we forgot a few words and a few notes wrong did not matter…and still doesn’t.
That day, my boat made it to a new shore. Hallelujah!
Leading a team requires you to lead by example. When I refused the microphone the first time, I let my fear of failure and looking silly in front of my team stop me from taking a risk. I failed to demonstrate the behavior I wanted to see from them.
Ask yourself if you were passed the microphone, would you take it? How many “microphones,” actual or figurative, have you refused out of fear of failing in front of your team? I would encourage you to push aside your fears and embrace the moment. Leading your team by example is critical to get them to accept the microphones you pass to them.