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From Individual Contributor to Leader

From Individual Contributor to Leader

A great documentary was made several years ago called Back and Forth, which chronicled the formation and rise to stardom of the rock band, the Foo Fighters.

Dave Grohl, the band’s founder, and the former drummer of legendary grunge band, Nirvana, had transitioned to front man. He was the Foo Fighters lead singer and guitarist.

The doco relates a very revealing story about the band’s first drummer, Will Goldsmith. In 1996, while they were recording the band’s second album, The Colour and The Shape, Dave Grohl’s perfectionism came to the fore. 

He wasn’t satisfied with excellence, and went to incredible lengths to ensure the drum tracks were recorded to his satisfaction.

According to Goldsmith, Grohl made him record a ridiculous number of takes for every track, on one occasion spending 13 hours straight doing the drum track for a single song. On another track, he had to do 96 takes before it was deemed to be good enough.

And guess what? After all of that, when the album was in post-production, Grohl decided he still wasn’t happy. So he re-recorded all the drum tracks himself, without telling Goldsmith. You can imagine how Goldsmith felt when he found out.

He left the band immediately, paving the way for Taylor Hawkins, who became a permanent fixture in the Foo Fighters. Of course, Hawkins sadly passed away last year. 

But just take a moment to think about how Will Goldsmith must have felt. You’re a professional, trying to do your best work and make a mark on the world. Then your boss says, “That’s not good enough! But I think I’ll still keep you around. I’ll just step in when I feel I need to.” Not very cool. 

Of the many mistakes that new leaders are prone to make, this is one of the most common, and the most insidious. Over-functioning for your people tells them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough. 

It trains them to accept that you’ll always step in and finish their job for them if anything goes wrong. And if they don’t feel like working to the best of their ability, well, that’s fine. You’ll make it right, and they’ll keep getting paid for not doing their job to the standard you expect. 

Your job is not to do your team’s work for them. It’s to build a team of people who can do their jobs independently. You’re there to liberate their talent and get the best performance from them that you possibly can. 

No one is ever going to be able to meet your exacting standards, especially when you first become a leader and you’re still really close to the action. But the remedy for that is not to step in and do the work for them.

Your job, as a leader, is to give your people clarity of purpose, resources, coaching, and the autonomy that comes with accountability. It’s to set the expectation that they deliver to a standard of excellence. It’s about leading them to do their job, not doing their job for them.

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