You don’t have to be a Paul Simon fan to learn about leadership from him. Yes, from Paul Simon, the singer-songwriter. Chances are you’ve heard of one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. Twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he’s the creator behind groundbreaking hits spanning decades, from “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” to “Graceland” and his most recent, “Seven Psalms.” Over time, he’s been lauded by fellow artists and fans for his singularly unique way with words and musical composition. You wouldn’t be faulted for concluding that that’s why he’s not been simply innovative, but a marketable success and one of the best-selling artists of all time. It’s true that ideas and innovations absolutely play a part. Yet, history is awash in innovators and inventions that never took, let alone had a rippling impact and staying power.
For nearly seven decades now, Simon has been a leader in his field with measurable and repeated chart-topping impact. Openly stated or secretly dreamed, it’s what every leader, regardless of sector, strives for. Many of those individual leaders possess exceptional skills; but beyond his talents, Simon possesses an insight most pass over. He knows that what makes him so impactful isn’t so much about him as about his audience. He knows that without them, he’s nothing. Without their conspiratorial collaboration as listeners and fans, he would lack their tolerance for the change he’s inviting each time he bends his artistry in a new way. Yet because of it, he can take them further than any thought they could.
Leaving some space
The question is, how does he do it? In other words, how does Simon not simply excel as a change leader, but thrive as a change-maker? Simon once offered his own answer:
“I try to leave a space after every difficult line,” he wrote, “either a silence or a lyrical cliche that gives the ear a chance to ‘catch up’ with the song before the next thought arrives and the listener is lost.” Simon described songwriting, yet the insight is vital and applicable for any leader in any field hoping to innovate and innovate ongoing: You have to make space for others to join you. The proof stretches far beyond the craft of songwriting or the music industry.
The practice of a pause first jumped out at me while researching my first book. For it, I conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of successful entrepreneurial leaders across every imaginable sector. Consciously, and deliberately, my focus was those whose success lay not in a single innovative idea, but in the ability to ideate and deliver countless ideas, over and over, indeed to build organizational cultures that collectively birthed and nurtured one value-laden idea after another. A pattern quickly emerged — one so strong, it became the book’s title: “A Deliberate Pause.” I saw that these innovative, resilient leaders, each in their own way, had a personal practice of pausing — deliberately, consciously — to ask, ‘Why are things the way they are, and how might they be better?’ I then saw that the best among them went further still.
While most began the habit of the deliberate pause as a means of gaining perspective for themselves individually, the truly successful gradually saw the practice not simply as the domain of some, or even just a tool of innovation, but as a human necessity, and a competitive advantage. They then gave their teams and organizational cultures the same space – to pause, to ask questions, to ponder, to experiment, to back up and regroup, if necessary, to fail forward and to think in new and innovative ways, something they had initially given just to themselves. Importantly, they didn’t tell their teams how or what to do in those pauses. They simply allowed such pauses to become commonplace, vital. Like Paul Simon, these leaders knew intuitively that people would know what to do. Their job as leader was simply to invite their teams to rise to their full forward-thinking potential in the powerful space the pause creates.
Pause for new insight
In his song “Something So Right,” Simon knowingly sang, “When something goes wrong, I’m the first to admit it — the first to admit it, but the last one to know.” Where far too many leaders go wrong, is believing they alone must have all the answers, and that the burden of ideas and innovations that carry an organization forward can somehow be shouldered by one. It’s not true. It’s never been true, even if it seems leaders may be the last ones to know it’s not true. If you pause, you’ll see it, too.
Sometimes, it takes time to see it. Sometimes, it’s the taking that time, in the smallest of pauses, habitually, that’s the greatest gift a leader can give themselves. Sharing that gift with others in a frenetically changing world where innovation is no longer a once-in-a-while exercise, but instead a daily survival skill is today arguably the most important leadership tool of all. Allow that to be your new earworm.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.