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Life, Leadership and the Ukulele

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I decided to escape the afternoon sun for a complementary ukulele lesson offered by a local musician, Jason Jerome. About ten hotel guests gathered – from age 8 to 80 – to learn a little about how to play the instrument… and a lot more.

After a few minutes of instruction, we had mastered three simple chords that would allow us to play hundreds of songs. Sensing that we were ready to go to the next level and get fancier with our technique, Jason took the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of the instrument with a complex piece… and even more complex fingering.

He then offered a lesson that reverberated far beyond the world of music as he went on to explain one of the fundamental functions of the ukulele: to bring people together. He described how complicating a song with sophisticated techniques distances people, making them feel intimidated and excluded, whereas keeping it simple invites others into the experience. In Hawaii, he explained, the ukulele is a tool for drawing people together, building relationships and sharing gifts.

Not long after, the class ended, but a question kept rolling around in my mind:

How frequently do we use our talents to set ourselves
apart rather than to bring people together?

In our fiercely individualistic culture, mastery is sought as a distinguishing quality. Employees are evaluated as singular units, fueling the competition and need to stand out. And in some organizations people continue to be ranked, with those at the bottom of the list being invited to make their talents available to the marketplace. We pay lip service to the virtues of teams but typically reward and admire individual achievement.

Perhaps it’s time for leaders to take a lesson from the islands.

  • What if we approached work more like an opportunity to harmonize our talents, rather than insisting upon playing standout solos?
  • What if we set the expectation that individual notes are subordinate to the overall melody that the group plays together?
  • What if employees saw it as their responsibility to help others contribute optimally, even if it meant shifting the spotlight away from them personally?

Just maybe we’d see a new culture emerge. A culture of authentic inclusion. A culture in which people support the team above themselves. A culture that genuinely supports experimentation and risk-taking.

Leaders have an opportunity to use work like the ukulele. Not to dumb down the skills and talents of employees – but to create the opportunity for all to contribute and to raise their capacity in the process.


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