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  • Katie O'Keeffe

Changing the world one team at a time

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

I’ve had a vision for an open source blog about leadership for a while. I call it open source because I want to share the theories, concepts and practices that I’ve found have resonated with people (myself included) in helping them to become better leaders and to develop better leadership in their organisations (and their lives). I want to credit and source the many people who have helped me to learn, grow and develop my own craft as I help others to develop theirs.


My ambition is to change the world one team at a time. Working with individual leaders to help them be their best is fulfilling and inspiring work. I love seeing people tap into something inside themselves for the first time, discover their passion and purpose and feel the energy of planning a way forward that is better than the past. It also pains me to know how incredibly difficult it is to take that energy and excitement and translate it into a real difference in the context of a complex organisational system. Working alone as an individual is a hard path to walk – yes, you can go fast, but if you want to go far you need to do it with others.


This is where my ambition to change the world one team at a time comes in. I have experienced the difference of working with a team of people to develop a shared leadership commitment, to work together in new ways to impact positive change on each other. I have seen the infectious energy that teams have on the people they come into contact with and the real potential to impact change on a system. What I have learned is that it is important to work in multiple dimensions to develop great leaders and organisational leadership – that it’s all about practices and routines that occur within the context of the system.


Being a great leader who is part of a great team is much like an orchestra


I’ve been working on an analogy to help bring this to life that I’d like to share with you now – and I’d really like your thoughts and feedback. I have to give credit to Aiden Thornton (click here for Aiden’s profile on LinkedIn) for introducing me to the analogy many years ago when we were talking about the difference between entertainment and development for leaders. He planted a seed that has stuck with me and that has grown over the years… The orchestra…


The importance of practising to perform


Let’s say I am a member of an orchestra, perhaps a clarinet player. As a musician, I must practise each day to continue to master my craft. I practise foundational skills like scales. I practise pieces of music that I am performing. I practise hard to be able to play my part of the piece perfectly.


This individual practise is important, and it’s not enough for the orchestra to perform.

As a clarinet player, I am part of a section of the orchestra – the woodwind section. As woodwinds, we may practise together separately from the full orchestra to really hone our overall contribution to the full piece.


This group practise is important, and it’s not enough for the orchestra to perform.

For the orchestra to perform, we must also practise together. We tune our instruments together, we practise parts of the overall score repeatedly, and then we put it all together end to end.


This group practise is critical, and it’s not enough alone for us to perform beautifully for an audience.


We must also take into account the context in which we are playing and adjust for that – the venue, the time of the day, the acoustics, the size of the audience, perhaps a guest soloist and so on. All of these contextual factors are critical to ensuring a wonderful performance.


To learn and develop you must do the work


Now let’s say that our orchestra wants to learn a new piece to perform. We could watch another orchestra perform it to hear how it sounds and to learn from the experience of others… but this will not enable us to perform it ourselves.


We could speak with other musicians who have learned and performed that piece to learn from their experience and possibly speed up our own learning… but this will not enable us to perform it.


To be able to perform the piece, we must practise. We must take the music and sit together and learn it. I must take my music and deliberately practise every day to learn my part and I must continue to practise my foundational skills.


And if I am a member of another group, I must also balance my time and priorities to ensure I dedicate sufficient practise with all groups.


Leadership practices and routines in the context of the system


By now, you probably see where I am going with this… as a leader in an organisation, I must have practices and routines that I deliberately do every day. These individual leadership practices are important as they will determine my personal impact and effectiveness, and alone they are not enough to ensure an effective organisation.


As a leader working within a team, we must have team practices and routines that we all work on together to ensure the team performs at our best.


And we all operate within the context of the system. What are the systemic practices and routines and broader societal contexts that we need to account for as we work together?

To learn and develop our skills, we must do the work, we have to physically practise together. We must pause and reflect on our progress and effectiveness, and adjust our course when needed. We can observe, listen to and learn from others, but this alone will not make us better leaders or improve the leadership within our organisations.


The one big difference I see in all of this is that in business we are not practising for one big performance – we are performing all the time. Our practise and our performance are rolled in together, which makes the reflection and feedback loop even more important.

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