What James Taylor Taught Me about Leadership

women, leaderOne responsibility leaders have is to put people into stretch positions so they can grow. When they do this effectively, people develop. When they do it ineffectively, people regress. It’s like when you drive a standard shift car and you are stuck in traffic on a hill. You have to “ride” the clutch just right so as not to either hit the car in front or in back of you.

When I was in high school my dad bought a used Volkswagen Beetle for us to drive. It was red like this one. One night shortly after he taught me how to drive, he suggested I take it out to an evening meeting. He had parked it after work on our inclined driveway. A few minutes later as I tried to shift it in gear and back up the driveway it stalled and the Beetle and I rolled through the garage door. He and Mom heard the crash. He came down to make sure I was alright. He didn’t get angry and calmly made me get into the undamaged car and drive off to the meeting anyways. I think he knew this was a “stretch lesson” for his good son.

Carole King

Patti and I just listened to Carole King’s autobiography A Natural Woman on a recent road trip. Carole King is a very talented folk/rock composer and performer, who has won four (4) Grammy Awards and recorded 25 solo albums. She is most famous for her Tapestry album, which for 20 years held the record for most weeks at #1 by a female artist (Until Whitney Houston’s soundtrack album The Bodyguard.)

Many of the songs on Tapestry have become classics – here are four:

“You’ve Got a Friend”
“I Feel the Earth Move”
“So Far Away”
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”

King was a teenage prodigy who wrote the music for many early rock hits. Here are a few she wrote before turning 24 years old:

“The Loco-Motion” – Little Eva
“Take Good Care of My Baby” – Bobby Vee
“Up on the Roof” – Drifters
“I’m into Something Good” – Herman’s Hermits
“Pleasant Valley Sunday” – Monkees
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” – Aretha Franklin

James Taylor and Carol King

As good as King was as a songwriter, piano player, and singer, she didn’t think she was a very good performer. James Taylor was (and is) amazed by her talent. In the very early 1970s he asked her to join his touring band and play the piano and sing as a back-up. She agreed and enjoyed performing, but only in the background.

One night, though, when they were about to perform at Queens College, King’s alma mater, James Taylor surprised her. Before they walked on stage he told King he wanted her to come to stage center and take the lead singing, “Up on the Roof”, which she had written. This song had been part of Taylor’s concert and he had always taken the lead. This was quite a shock to King.

Taylor introduced King as a Queens College alum, reminded the audience of all the hits she had written, and let her take over the song. Despite being very nervous, she sang it and, of course, the audience loved it. She wrote in her autobiography how this was the turning point in her performance career.

James Taylor knew when it was the right time to put King in a stretch position and she (and we) has been forever grateful.

If you are in a leadership role, remember it is your responsibility to push your singers out on stage – just pick the right time.

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