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Leadership Lessons I Learned from Neil Peart

Published May 23, 2015

Neil Peart
Neil Peart

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely places…
Anyone who knows me knows how important music and leadership development is to me. I find inspiration in both places. Through the years music has always been important to me and I have found much comfort in it through difficult times and also during my growth as a leader.
Learning about leadership is something I have been doing for 3 decades, from my first leadership position as a swing manager for Art Phillips at his 7 Highway McDonald’s restaurant back in 1985 through today as Chief Executive Officer of Salad and Go.
Trends come and go, different musical styles have their day, and a lot bands get their 15 minutes of fame. Through the years I have had a few constant companions when it comes to music. And one of those musical companions has been the band RUSH. The music has always been great, but it’s when I dug into the lyrics written by drummer Neil Peart that I really developed a massive appreciation for the band.
Through the years the lyrics to RUSH songs always represented a very intellectual approach to rock and roll, which I really enjoyed. There was just something different about it that I could not put my finger on. But in 1996, right before the release of the band’s sixteenth album Test For Echo, I listened to a radio interview with the band talking about their new album. This radio interview included conversations with all three members of the band, which was rare then, and even more so now. It was in this interview listening to the conversations with the band, but particularly with Neil Peart, that I received several valuable leadership lessons that I have hung onto, and actually taught in the years since.
Rooted in this conversation was the idea that after playing the instrument for 30 years, 20 of those in RUSH, Neil Peart felt like it was time to take drum lessons! Hearing him describe that process of working with Master Teacher Freddie Gruber and doing everything differently than he had before was inspiring. He changed the way he set the drums up, he changed the way he sat at the drums, he changed the way he held the drumsticks, and even changed which end of the drumsticks he held! Everything he did was completely rebuilt. He sat down in his basement and practiced everyday, just like when he was a kid. He started all over. He describes it as just taking 30 years and throwing it all away, and starting over. One of the big ideas here for me was that he took everything he knew and had been good at and approached it from a different foundation so that even things he had known and had learned, he was coming at them from a different point of view and applying them in different ways.
Leadership Lessons

  • No matter how good you are, there is always room to improve
  • Everyone needs a coach
  • Just because you’ve done it a certain way for years, doesn’t mean it’s the best way

When asked if after the lessons and relearning his craft if he was a better drummer, Neil Peart said “I certainly came to understand a lot of things that I didn’t understand before, and I certainly feel as if I knew nothing before, so I guess that’s some element of progress.” The interviewer Jo Robinson told Peart that it must be very discouraging for drummers that he would say that he knew nothing before taking these lessons from Freddie Gruber.
He said that is the way it should be really, and that is how we should all define ourselves. If we gain a certain level of control over our instrument¬†(in our case leadership)¬†after 10 years then we might be good. To try and be great is something that you have to earn every day, it’s not something to be attained, and not likely to be a laurel we can rest on.
Leadership Lessons

  • Humility is essential in the life of a leader
  • Greatness is something we have to earn everyday, with every conversation we have

While I am not a drummer in one of the most successful rock bands in history, I am a leader. And you are too. And as such I think that there are some very important lessons we can all apply to our style. I have been leading and developing other leaders for a long time, but I look for opportunities everyday to get better and hearing one of my musical heroes talk about how he reset after 20 years gives me the encouragement to reinvent myself on an ongoing basis to make sure I am leading well, and always learning.
And from Neil Peart’s most recent blog post…“What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.”