Make Your Leaders Sing

Note:  This was originally published on July 17, 2011 


If you want to lead better, and who doesn’t, then you know that leading is about helping others to produce their best, right?  The most powerful leaders are not those who lead millions, but those, whom the vast majority of people talk about when asked about who most powerfully influenced them:  They are moms and dads, supervisors and managers, coaches and teachers, pastors or youth group leaders.  You might say about your formative leaders – as I would about Fr. Canfield, Mr. Boes (my first good little league coach), Tom (my first supervisor in a hamburger joint), Sister Noel, or Mary Zatina (who supposedly worked “for” or “under” me), that they helped you to identify what you had to offer, they “named” you, or they helped you to “find your voice.” They did this through a very specific compliment about something you did, brought, or were.

Your “voice” is a personal thing.  It’s your brand.  Your uniqueness.  Your calling. Your best and highest gift and your passion.  One of my friends was chiding her husband at dinner last night about how hard he works; they’re both in their mid-60s.  He smiled and said, “Dear, it took me to my mid-50s to find what I loved, and now I just want to do more and more of it.” What an awesome thing to find your niche, your calling, your voice. Finding his voice, his gifts was like opening the world to a treasure trove of riches.

I’ve been finding my voice in a much more literal way – through voice lessons. I was sharing this week with my new teacher how much joy I feel in singing (and like my friend who found his voice, it’s taken me to 53 years old to fully lay claim to that). She remarked: “In some countries like Ireland and Ethiopia everyone sings. It’s abnormal not to, while here, people think they have to be special to sing.”  We agreed that it’s because voice – literal or in the figurative way I was discussing above – is so just personal. And let me bring us back to leadership – first to crushing leadership.  When we are told our singing – or speaking, our ideas, opinions, or important work – are “flat, off key, we shouldn’t sing; they’re weird, crazy, etc.,” we NEVER forget it. One idle remark and we are silenced.  I’ll bet hundreds if not thousands of the people reading RFL today have a distinct memory of a time they were told they couldn’t sing, act, hit a ball, write, act, draw, be creative, ever get elected, etc. And from that point forward for the vast majority, it was: “Monkey’s dead. Show’s over.”

The research in many fields says it takes 5 positives to compensate for 1 negative remark. When it comes to the very personal – our literal voice, or a budding identity, I suspect the ratio is more like 50 or 100:1.  So, there is a TON of work to do to help unleash people’s passions, have confidence in their budding voice, find their unique strengths and beliefs.

So today you might look for a way to comment on and compliment somebody’s voice.  It’s a way that you can:

Lead with your best self,


  • Hi Dan — nice column! It also reminded me of a question that has always puzzled me. When does negative criticism have a positive impact?

    I ask because many successful folks I know have mentioned formative moments when they decided to vigorously rebut criticism by excelling. A notable mathematician once told me that a key moment for him had been a freshman advanced math class at an Ivy league school where after a test the professor announced anyone whose test score was below a certain number didn’t belong in the class. My friend had scored below the magic number and responded “I’ll show him” and proceeded to ace the class.

    I suspect (with no evidence) that many successful folks can remember such a moment and that it flavors their approach to mentoring others — that knowing the huge impact such a comment can have, they sometimes reach for the negative comment when they should reach for the positive comment.

    • Craig (and Amy),

      You’ve raised a fascinating question. I had an employer who told me I didn’t work hard enough and my good mind wouldn’t really carry me far. Had he asked (or had I the courage), I would have told him that I was as bored with the work as he was, and that I had real ethical concerns with how we were doing it. I quit instead. But you know what, I did hear his message; it did stick with me. I don’t advise the negative as an ongoing strategy of motivation, but sometimes I think it can light a fire.

      On my one public “appearance,” when I sang and played guitar at a friend’s big party a guy actually came up to me after – knowing it was the first time I had played guitar in front of a real crowd – and said, “You have a really nice voice, but you don’t need the guitar. I’d just sing if I were you.” I was struck by how “politically incorrect” or unempathetic it was, and for a time I believed him. But I’ve realized that continued practice is actually working. Lo and behold I’m getting better. (And to prove the point I was writing about, I don’t remember a single nice thing that was said to me that night, although I generally remember that friends said nice things.)

      Last: resilience matters in anything! Although I don’t advise anyone to issue stinging criticisms, I advise everyone who gets them, (1) to take the value they get from it, (2) realize that people who sting are usually making up for their own deficiencies, and (3) move on!!!

      Thanks for the stimulating thought. YOU are good at that!


  • Is it possible that some people excel despite criticism, not because of it? Someone who taught me much that has proved valuable is fond of saying, “There is no such thing as constructive criticism; it’s ALL constrictive crudicism.” She teaches a different way to influence people. She creates choirs of singers with her teachings! I wonder if the mathematician did well because he already believed he could do well. He didn’t let the criticism stop him. He knew he wanted to sing his math, and he knew he was capable of doing it. He simply chose not to believe the professor and to go on doing what he wanted to do already, be great in mathematics. The criticism, therefore, was not responsible for his excelling; his own choice of beliefs was. It sounds like he had fun showing the professor what he already knew, that he had a beautiful voice for math!

  • I think the phrase, “don’t quit your day job” should be struck from the language. Why would anyone say such an ugly, mean-spirited thing to a friend or co-worker who found a way to express their joy? When I hear someone singing in the break room I think, “Good for them. They found a little bit of happiness today and it makes them want to sing.”

    I hear this phrase all the time and it’s always said in the spirit of humor. How anyone could find this funny is beyond me. “Don’t quit your day job” is the opposite of constructive criticism. If someone walks into work with a new haircut no one says, “I wouldn’t enter any beauty contests if I were you.” If someone hangs up their kid’s drawing in their cubicle no one says, “Boy, I hope you’re not sending him to art school.” If the best you can say is nothing then by all means lead with your best self and say nothing.

    Insults rarely release anyone’s passions. Thank you, Dan, for reminding people that it takes a lot of positives to compensate for a negative.

  • Great column, but are you sure your voice teacher said Ethiopia and not ESTONIA? Estonia is known for its singing tradition. In fact, when Estonia was able to free itself from Soviet occupation 20 years ago in 1991, it was called the singing revolution. There is even an excellent documentary called The Singing Revolution that documents the history and talks about the song gestivals where over 10,000 people sing together at a site especially constructed for such big musical undertakings. There are numerous videos on YouTube that you might enjoy if you are into singing. Keep up the great voice!

  • Voice lessons? Terrific, Dan! Has it been on your “bucket list?” I’ve been cantoring for 10 years…always felt more “loud” than “good” LOL But over time I watched our daughter find her voice. She began to sing w/our parish teens. We even sang a duet in church (awesome!) and then, as she went off to college, she auditioned as a walk-on and made her school choir! She coupled that w/voice lessons. In a way, she inspired me to do the same. I had the opportunity to take lessons this past year…wonderful experience. Teacher was great! Made me feeling stronger and more satisfied in the “Little Engine That Could Way.” But the very best is that it’s put me more in touch with my spirit-self. Now, I’m feeling GOOD and loud! So, my friend…relax, breathe and continue to enjoy every note!

  • Wow! Love this one. I am a little tone deaf, so singing has never really been on my radar. Thank you for sharing.

    Alternatively though, can’t some of these critiques (meant to tear down) be turned into a blessing? I remember several occasions where someone told me that I could never ____ but it actually motivate me to succeed.

    • Chris,
      Yes! Sometimes when people tell us we can’t…we love it. It would be an interesting study to figure out what the circumstances or psychological types are that lead people in one direction or the other – to give up entirely, or dig in with determination.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Good afternoon, Dan, You have a very nice voice, Dan. I’m sure your singing voice is just as nice.
        I wish I did but my voice sucks. Stupid lisp and can’t say letters like V or R. I Definetly can’t sing. I do try and compliment people including their voice because people could use it especially kids or down and out people. A compliment or encouragement can go a long way while discouraging or insulting (trashing) someone can be damaging, I know.
        Your boss that told you, “you didn’t work hard enough and your good mind wouldn’t carry you far”, I hope he saw what you accomplished later on.
        Have a good day, Patricia

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