4 mins

The things that make someone a great manager have a lot in common with the things that make someone a great singer.

My family has been enjoying the Netflix game show ‘Sing On!’ quite a bit lately. If you’ve not seen it, it’s essentially a karaoke singing competition. The contestants take turns singing portions of songs, with the best singer among them taking home a cash prize. The show’s gimmick is that ‘best’ isn’t decided by judges or even the audience; instead, it’s determined by a computer vocal analyzer measuring how closely each singer is in timing and pitch to songs as they were originally recorded.

This all seems great in theory, but the reality is a little messier. There is at least one competitor on every episode of the show who consistently lands among the top scores but sounds absolutely terrible. They’re nailing the notes and the timing, but something about the way they’re singing the song makes them really unpleasant to listen to. So what’s going on here? How can they sound so bad when the analyzer says they’re so on target?

Some of these high-scoring contestants are just not particularly good vocalists. They’re accurate, but there’s a lot more to singing beautifully than just hitting the notes. Things like tone, vibrato, and the occasional improvisation all add the character and texture that pull the listener into a great vocal performance. The high-scorers are delivering technically proficient performances, but not the kind of singing that stirs the soul.

Others seem to be optimizing their performance for the vocal analyzer. Singing with no vibrato, for example, makes it more likely that the vocal analyzer will give a higher score for pitch. This group has good tone, good breath support, and despite their best efforts, some vibrato inevitably sneaks into their performances. It’s clear that they know how to sing well, but they also seem to understand that singing well isn’t their path to victory.

As managers, our focus can sometimes be drawn too much towards being technically proficient. Not technical in the sense of writing code or making technical decisions; rather, technical in the sense of running efficient planning meetings, tracking work accurately, and gathering and reporting status effectively. Doing all the little organizational bits and pieces that managers do to keep their teams tasked and keep their management chain informed.

This is all good and necessary work, but it’s the managerial equivalent of just hitting the right notes. Actually leading requires setting a vision for your team, coaching the individuals you support past the things that hold them back, understanding (and helping your team understand) how the work you do fits into the overall mission of your company. Your leadership is critical to the ability of the folks on your team to find deep, motivational satisfaction in their work. You can’t help them find the things that motivate them if you’re more focused on reporting status than leading.

The fascinating thing about these accurate-but-bad singers is that, despite their accuracy and consistently high scores, they rarely actually win on the show. The final round of ‘Sing On!’ pits two finalists together, singing one last song to win the prize. The thing that seems to make the most difference in this final head-to-head battle is audience energy, and that energy tends to be more supportive to the more engaging vocalist. The winner is technically proficient, hitting the most notes according to the vocal analyzer, but they do it while delivering a performance that draws the audience in. It’s this audience energy that ultimately carries them to victory, helping them hold out notes just a bit longer and keeping them on pitch.

As we look around our organizations, we’re sometimes tempted to compare ourselves to other leaders. The rubric we tend to use when we do this is something akin to the vocal analyzer. We look at all the public work others do, how organized they are, how detailed their status updates are, and we use that as a proxy for how good a manager they are. Someone who looks busy will score pretty high on that scale.

But in reality, the things that make someone a great manager have a lot in common with the things that make someone a great singer. They can’t be discerned by empirical measurement alone. Someone who looks busy might not be all that effective at actually leading their team in doing great work. Someone else who isn’t all that prolific in the day-to-day might be driving their team to deliver outstanding results, and that’s much harder to see on a short time scale.

The public status reports and processes are important, but so much of good leadership is intangible and hard to measure. Sometimes it even feels invisible. So, instead of judging yourself based on what you see other managers doing, look at your team instead. Are they inspired? Do they know why their work matters? Are they growing? Are they delivering? If they are, then keep singing your song, because it’s working.