“Art as expression, not as market campaigns”

The title of this post is in quotes because I didn’t make it up… it’s a lyric from the song “Natural Science” by Rush.  It actually popped into my head today as I watched a landscaper carefully shape some ground cover plantings with a weed wacker.

Jasmine ground cover (similar to the stuff my guy was working on)

He was taking such care, yet his movements looked effortless.  The end result was quite stunning and I thought, “this guy’s an artist”.  Maybe not in the painter/musician/dancer/poet terms of the word, but certainly in terms of someone who cares about what he is doing, i.e. his craft.

So then I thought, couldn’t we all elevate our craft to the artist level?  To me it starts with understanding the definition of the word “art” (from Dictionary.com)

Art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

I think there are three words or phrases that pop out no matter what your chosen craft might be (i.e painter, musician, leader, salesperson, writer, carpenter, teacher, landscaper, insert any profession here).

They are:

Quality – We all want to do quality work, but is that a sliding scale?  Your quality will be measured against others and by others.  But, it’s imperative for you to measure the quality of your output based on it’s relationship to your previous efforts. Is your quality getting better?  If so, you are moving in the right direction.

Appealing – We all need our work to appeal to someone, but will it appeal to everyone?  Certainly as a musician or painter, the answer will be no, and that’s okay.  You may have a narrow niche audience for your craft, but if you consistently provide a high quality product, they will be a loyal bunch. What this looks like for a leader, for example, is being able to adapt your style to appeal to the various individuals you will be leading.  You need them to be loyal so you can produce a quality product.

…Of more than ordinary significance – This is the kicker. We can provide quality and appeal to our audience, but what’s the significance?  In other words, who cares?  And more over, who cares more than an ordinary amount?  When YOU care more than an ordinary amount, it shows in your work. When that amount of attention is given to providing an experience, service, or product to someone else, they can’t help but notice and appreciate the effort you have put in. They may even call it stunning. They may even call you an artist.

If you haven’t made a plan improvement for 2015 yet, feel free to use this as your guide.  Elevate your quality and appeal, and deliver more than ordinary significance in everything you do.  Can’t wait to see what you can accomplish!

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!!




Inc Small

LiF Twitter

What shuffling through iTunes taught me about business

On a recent flight to Minneapolis, I got the chance to listen to a lot of great music. As it would happen, iTunes did a nice job shuffling through my songs, picking a bunch that I hadn’t heard it a while. Probably no coincidence that many were by Rush, as they represent the largest collection of songs by any artist in my library.

And here is what I noticed. As I listened carefully to these songs, especially some of the Rush songs, I noticed a distinct progression happening… A journey that Rush ITunesthe artist takes you on from the beginning of the song to the end, adding layers and textures, building intensity, telling a story, subtly changing rhythms and melodies to propel us forward to the next verse, chorus, bridge or solo.

It was the first time in a while that I really listened to music as an event, rather than using it a way to fill the air with sound.

And it was great.

And then it hit me. This is what an ideal consumer experience should be like, too.

Think about it… If someone walks through the doors of a store or talks to someone on the phone before their visit, that’s like the intro of a song – setting the tone for the experience.  As they go through the store, they may experience repeating patterns that become familiar, such as brand or promotional messaging – much like a familiar and repeatable chorus of a popular song.

They also get to see, touch and smell different items that continually pique their interest, inviting them to try more. This would equate musically to changes in key or melody, time signature and tempo.

If done correctly, the end result is a very satisfying experience where both the listener and the consumer feels they have been on a wonderful journey that they want to repeat.

Now, I will say that not every song I listened to took me on this journey. Some had a good hook or a great beat, but didn’t quite bring it all together… for me. And that’s okay.

So how does your business compare to this musical metaphor?  Are you set up to maximize transaction efficiency while failing to tell a story, your story, that ultimately draws your customer in and makes them part of the journey?

If so, how could you change that?  When was the last time you truly experienced your business as your consumer does?  It sounds simple, but seeing things from their vantage point can uncover incredible opportunities.

This concept also applies to the employee experience. They start off not knowing much about your organization, but ultimately they will be the ones “telling” your story to your guests. How can you create a welcoming environment, intrigue them with new information and skills, and engage them in your brand so they will WANT to share your story?

If you could do this, both with your guests and employees, wouldn’t that be music to your (and their) ears?

Thanks for reading!


In case you are interested, the song that most inspired this post was “Manhattan Project” by Rush.  Below is a video of just the lyrics, but I challenge you to close your eyes, put on some headphones and just listen. (If you are reading this in an email, click here to view the video.)

Will the green arrow save you?

No, the green arrow I am talking about is not a super hero, the green arrow is literally, a green arrow.

And it can’t save you. But I have a feeling a lot of people are waiting for it to.

The other day I was sitting at a traffic light, waiting to make a left-hand turn across a large, usually busy intersection. I was the first car in line, so moving forward was dependent on my actions. In front of me was a green light, but NOT the green left-hand turn signal. What was also in front me, was open road. Not a car to be seen coming the other way to impede my progress.

Yet, I sat there. Partly because I was lost in the song that was playing, partly because I had been conditioned to wait for the green arrow when turning left.

In this case, it was perfectly legal and safe to make the left turn, but it took a while for that message to make it to my brain. I guess I was waiting for it to be ultra-super safe.

That made me wonder how many times in our lives are we poised to move forward, yet we wait for some sort of condition, or in this case a signal, to tell us that it’s ultra-super safe to move forward and that there will be no risk in doing so?

Me thinks, a lot.

I know I’ve done it. When Linda and I were discussing whether or not to rebuild our website, there were many unknown factors. We had a green light in terms of having a business model that had been successful for four years, but could we sustain it? Could we make it work as a full-time business? At some point it would have been great to get the “green arrow” in terms of removing the risk from such a move, but that wasn’t going to happen. With any new venture, there is risk.

What green arrows are you waiting for? In what areas of your life or career are you waiting for the ultra-super safe signal to move ahead, when current conditions are potentially as favorable as they are ever going to be?

If you are struggling with a decision, don’t be afraid to try the old pro/con list. It may not be fancy, but it is effective in helping clarify your thoughts while putting the real benefits and challenges into a workable format.

What I really like about the con list, is that it gives you a to do list.  If done properly, it lays out the obstacles you need to overcome to avoid some of the risk. The pro column also shows the real and tangible benefits of the action. You may find the risk isn’t worth the potential outcome.

Or is it?

Thanks for reading!

About the author:  Matt Heller was listening to Rush’s Clockwork Angels when sitting at the light, being inspired to write this post.  Matt also produces a monthly newsletter with additional insight and articles.  To sign-up for email delivery, click here.

Got a leadership dilemma? Ask me! matt@performanceoptimist.com

Give Your Peeps a Chance

So Rush just released their 20th studio album entitled Clockwork Angels.  60+ minutes of music from three guys who have been together for over 30 years and are each pushing the 60 year-old mark.  If that weren’t incredible enough, it’s actually a really good album, but then again, I am a Rush fan.

What that means is that I will certainly give them a chance when they release new material.  They are typically treading in some new territory, and as fans we’ve become accustomed to their desire to change course musically over the years. That’s probably what has kept them thriving and relevant since 1974.

What this also means is that it might take some time to get used to their new direction.  Mention Rush to 99% of the population, and they will immediately think of the song, “Tom Sawyer.”  Even if they liked that song, they may not have liked other things they heard by the band because it wasn’t exactly like (or very close to) the style of Tom Sawyer.  The same is true of this new album, but I realized a few things as I listened to it multiple times (that WILL lead to some leadership insight, I promise!).

  • Rush music challenges the listener.  They certainly don’t play what you are expecting. Unfamiliar chord changes, arrangements and melodies seem to be their norm, if that makes sense.  Again, that might make it tough to sonically digest for some.  What it does for the people who stick with it for a few listens is that it helps to expand their musical vocabulary, like listening to different points of view on a particular topic.
  • Rush fans trust the band to make it worth their while. Rush has been around long enough to build up a pretty loyal fan base that will take the time to listen to and absorb the new music they create.  One of the most often heard comments about a Rush album, especially this one, is that it gets better with each listen.  Nuances of the music are discovered which makes you want to listen AGAIN to hear what ELSE might be going on that you missed the first 7 times.  By this point you are very familiar with the music, and most likely, the oddness of the new direction is growing on you or it’s not.  Thing is, you’ve already invested significant time… what’s one more listen to be sure?

Here’s how this all relates to leadership (at least in my mind)…

We all have people in our personal and professional lives that challenge us. Sometimes that challenge seems like a good thing that helps us grow, sometimes it’s just annoying.  What we have to realize is that even the annoying challenges help us grow.  Think about that employee who just seems to rub you the wrong way.  Everything they say is like nails on a chalkboard, and you usually do what you can to avoid them.  Well… what if you really gave them a chance and REALLY listened to them?  What are they trying to tell you?  What nuances of their personality have you missed because you dismissed their annoying persona from the get go?

Like I am a fan of Rush, I think it is important for leaders to be a fan of people.  Not crazy, paint your face kind of fans… well… maybe – why not?  What shows your enthusiasm for your team more than your willingness to go out on a limb for them?  What instills loyalty more than consistently delivering on your promise to be there for them?  What creates more “I will do whatever it takes” type of attitudes than having complete trust in someone and their ability to lead you in the right direction?

That’s what a fan sees.  That’s what you want your employees to see in you.  But like many things, it starts with you.

Be a fan of theirs, they will be a fan of yours.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller attended his first Rush concert in 1984.  He was 14 and had to buy and extra ticket so his Dad could come along as the chaperone. True story.

You’ll never know what you missed

When I was going to school at Full Sail, there was one particular guest speaker that I was really looking forward to: Bob Ludwig.

Bob is a mastering engineer, which is a big deal in the music business and Bob is one of the biggest guys. Mastering, a form of audio post-production, is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix to a data storage device (the master); the source from which all copies will be produced.  Chances are that if you have listened to popular music in the last 30 years, you have heard Bob’s work (even if you didn’t know it).

One of the reasons I was so looking forward to hearing him speak is that he had done extensive work with Rush, one of my favorite bands.

As it happened, Bob’s presentation was at the end of a long day of lectures in a darkened theater. He had a lot of great information and stories, but there were a few times I felt the day and the dark catching up with me, and noticed my eyelids getting heavy. And then it happened.

Just as I opened my eyes and stretched in my seat, I heard Bob say this: “And that’s what we did on Rush’s Moving Pictures album”.

What?  Seriously? I missed the one thing I really wanted to hear him talk about. He wasn’t on DVR and there was no rewind button. The moment was gone.

How many of these moments happen to us each day, not because we sleep through them, but because we are too busy racing from thing to thing to stop and notice that they are happening?

I’m going to guess that “all too often” is the answer, but would we really know if we missed them?  Hmmm…

Most of us only see a fraction of what our employees do everyday.  Sometimes we may see them do something great and think, “I’ve got to remember to tell them later how cool that was”.  Unfortunately, later often turns into never.

And that’s the problem… we’ve missed a golden opportunity to let our employees know how valuable they are.  It doesn’t have to be a big gesture, but it does need to be sincere.  Even a glance and a smile to a busy employee communicates volumes.

Since you will never know what you missed, it’s a good idea to address the things you DO see.  Your employees will thank you.

Thanks for reading!

About the author: Matt Heller is famous for his ice cube recipes and ability to relate any situation to a Seinfeld episode.  His favorite color is cobalt blue.

Rare and unique = special and memorable

When Linda and I went to Alaska earlier this year we wanted to see bald eagles. Alaska is supposed to have one of the highest concentration of bald eagles anywhere, so we figured this would be a lock.

And we saw bald eagles. Not throngs of them sitting on a river bank, but more like one here and one there. The ones we did see were amazing, and it meant even more to us when we would happen to see one because it was special. We lingered, we watched, we took pictures… We remember.I’m not saying that seeing a whole gaggle of eagles wouldn’t have been cool, but the limited nature of our sightings make each sighting unique and memorable.

Unfortunately, I think too many people are afraid to share their own uniqueness, especially in the business world, for fear of being left out or left behind.

Maybe it’s a lesson we learned on the playground. Kids who are different get picked last for kickball, or just plain picked on.

So we conform. “Conform or be cast out” is a lyric by Rush from their song Subdivisions, which is about how tough is to be different growing up. The problem with that lesson is that it doesn’t really work later in life. I think the more we conform and follow a path just because everyone else does, the more we lose who we really are.

Now, if that path is really what you want to do – go for it – full steam ahead. Make the best of it!  If you recognize that it’s not, stop.

Here’s how this can play out. I had a gentleman in my class the other day who has only been with his current company for about 1 month. He has a boatload of experience in the industry, and was asking about how to move up. In class we were exploring various communication and behavioral styles with the DiSC profile, and he asked if he should change his style to be more like the current leadership.

If you have read this entire post, I’ll bet you know what my answer was.

I said I understood his desire to fit in and be accepted, but I said it’s more important for you to be honest with yourself and true to who you are. Show you can get results, show that you have your own valid voice and be someone who can make a positive difference. In my opinion, that will make more of an impression than being a clone of the current establishment.

Of course I’m not saying this is easy.  If you have been through this same thing, leave a comment below and let us know what you did to succeed!

Thanks for reading!

More lessons from a rock band

I’ve always liked the song “Closer to the Heart” by Rush. (I like a lot of songs by Rush, but that’s a different post for a different time). In the past when I’ve thought of this song it was about the music, the performance or the lyrics (what else is there, right?).  How about the message.

I heard it again this morning and was really struck by the message behind the lyrics. It’s a lesson in leadership, teamwork and communication.  If you’ve never heard the song before, check this out.

Here are the lyrics, in case you missed them:

“And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones to start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the Heart

The blacksmith and the artist
Reflect it in their art
Forge their creativity
Closer to the Heart

Philosophers and ploughmen
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the Heart

You can be the captain
I will draw the chart
Sailing into destiny
Closer to the Heart”

Having heard the song a bazillion times, I have my own interpretations about the message.  Leave a comment and let me what you think this says about leadership.


Leadership Legacy Lessons from a Rock Band

If we have ever had a conversation about music for more than 3 seconds, it’s very likely that the Canadian power-trio Rush has been mentioned. I’ve been hooked as a fan of theirs since the early 80’s, mostly because of their musicianship, incredible arrangements, and the fact that they stuck to their guns and created the music they wanted to create.

In the early days of their career, they were dogged by critics and record companies alike because they were different. They didn’t conform to the cookie-cutter mold that created instant stardom. What they did do over the years is create a legion of loyal fans who appreciate a great live show with incredible, technically complex rock music… And along the way manage to rank #3 all time in consecutive gold and platinum album sales behind the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Their music and career is now being highlighted in a new movie called Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage.

What intrigues me most about their 40 year career (which is almost unheard of in rock ‘n’ roll) was HOW they became such a phenomenon, and what we can learn from their journey as leaders.

First, they stuck to what they believe in, and when something didn’t work, they didn’t give up but worked harder and got better. In the mid 70’s, Rush released an album called “Caress of Steel“. Even for die-hard fans this album is considered to be an acquired taste. It was not well received at the time, and in fact the subsequent tour was nick-named the “Down the Tubes Tour”. It did not go well. However, instead of folding up shop, they got back to work and created what has become one of their greatest works, “2112“.

With all of their accomplishments over the years, it would be easy for the eventual success to go to their heads. While I don’t know the members of the band personally, they have a reputation for being very humble and continually appreciative for the support of their fans. In their 1981 song “Limelight“, they talk about the blurred line of privacy that comes with being a celebrity, and how awkward it can be to try to pretend that a “stranger is a long-awaited friend.” To me that shows that they did not get into this business for the fame or money, but for the music. I think that is another thing that their fans have found to be refreshing over the years. You don’t hear about the members of Rush being involved in sex scandals or going to rehab, because they have remained grounded and never forget what’s really important, their fans and the music.

On the flip side, I also think a big part of their success comes from not taking themselves too seriously. They can laugh with and at each other, partly (I believe) because they have such deep-rooted respect for each other as people and musicians. This again helps them stay focused on what’s important.

So stick to what you believe in, stay humble and have fun… it’s a “formula” that’s worked for Rush for 40 years. Just think what it can do for your leadership career!

Thanks for reading!