Switch Hitters, Virtuoso Pianists, and Leaders who Learn

Playoff season! I’ve always loved baseball, because it combines rugged individualism with a loosely-coupled team element. Any kid can be a hero in baseball, and the team immediately shows its appreciation. In fact few games go by without at least one hero, and luck plays a pretty big part, so everyone has a chance.

 

Playing baseball isn’t complicated.  It doesn’t take much equipment, or many other people.  And you can see yourself gradually getting better at throwing, hitting, and running – all basic abilities, the core of the sport.  Sure, there’s plenty of strategy and subtlety in big-league ball; plenty of rules and umpires’ calls to argue about.  But there is something therapeutic, something healthy and edifying, about the “thwipp” of ball hitting mitt.  It’s simple, but somehow important—suggestive of a great result to come one day, if only one practices enough.

 

Still, one thing I never could understand was how a few players—from the captain of my Little League team right up to the great Mickey Mantle—could hit, or even throw, with either hand.  How do you do that? I always wondered.  How do you hone a skill with the dominant half of your brain, then replicate it with the weaker half?

 

Many of the best leaders are indeed switch hitters.  They play their strong side when they can, but their other side(s) when they must.  Some of them get very, very good at it.  When a brilliant analyst has to play salesman; when an inspiring, empathetic founder has to cut staff, these are the moments that test the breadth of leaders’ capabilities, often making the difference between success and failure.  One entrepreneur I know managed to supplement his world-class analytical skills with enough networking nous to land the contract that finally got his company moving.  But one of the most inspiring and supportive CEOs I’ve known was fired because his major shareholder lost confidence in his ability to take tough decisions during a recession.

 

As someone who helps develop leaders, I’m often torn between telling them “Play to your strengths” or “Improve your weaknesses.”  Of course, they have to do both – but I’ve found most people’s tendency is to focus on their strengths and stay away from weaknesses altogether.  We put ourselves in situations where we know how to succeed, and avoid those where we know we will be stretched.  The result is that we win when the task is familiar and the skills already present, and lose—or refuse—when we have to do something new.

 

We all have our heroes and role models.  Mine tend to be virtuoso performers, particularly in jazz music, where planning (a basic musical structure) and flexibility (improvisation) go hand in hand.  My all-time favourite was the Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007).  Peterson was famous for his complete technical mastery of the instrument.  There are, of course, right- and left-handed pianists. A few might be termed switch hitters, alternating their melody lines between right and left.  But Peterson went a step further, “hitting” with essentially both hands at the same time.  To hear some of his high-speed riffs, performed in parallel octaves simultaneously, you’d think you were listening to two pianists at once.   It was a level of virtuosity arguably never achieved by anyone, before or since.

 

Peterson had a perfectionist streak a mile wide.  He practiced seven hours a day.  But not only did he work to perfect the music; he worked specifically to perfect his ambidextrousness.  If one finger out of ten was weaker, where some pianists would favour that finger, Peterson worked and worked it until it was equal to the others.  He was known to tell students that to become real jazz pianists, they should perform a given riff for experts, sight unseen, using first one and then the other hand, until the experts couldn’t tell whether the dominant or the off hand was playing.  In other words, Peterson’s legendary virtuosity was grounded in a total versatility—the result of a perfect switch-hitting standard he applied relentlessly to himself and ultimately set for others.


Few leaders ever become virtuosos in both their strong and weak areas.  Most don’t need to.  But the difference between the leader who succeeds over time and the one who doesn’t is the innate desire to learn and improve, particularly in their less skilled areas.  Learning involves effort and risk.  Most successful executives don’t mind the effort, but many aren’t prepared to take the risk – of failing to produce the desired result; of being shown up when others are better at something; of not being perfect the first, second, or even third time they try.  It’s relatively easy to bat left-handed once, strike out, and go back to doing what you know.  It’s much harder to settle into an alternate mode of working long enough to understand and apply—though never to master—it.

 

So most leaders stick with what they are good at. Few become switch hitters, let alone virtuosos.  But leadership isn’t only about performance.  In a fast-changing world, it must also be about supporting learning—one’s own and others’.  And although they may talk the language, most leaders—particularly experts in one area—don’t really understand or live by this idea of leadership.

 

Fortunately, many of Generation Y and even more Millennials seem to get it.  Virtuosos or not, they are good at finding, becoming, or even just appreciating those sometime-heroes who play their strong side when they can and switch-hit when they must.  If the next generation of leaders can combine that kind of learning and flexibility with a sustained effort at skill-building, they will be a force to reckon with.  Even better if, as some companies are getting very good at making happen, the younger generation mentors the older.  And although practically speaking I’m probably too old to bat (or play piano) left-handed, I have to say that, looking ahead, I’m cautiously optimistic.

 

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