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Leadership Lessons from the End of the Dial Tone

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  • | 5:00 p.m. March 7, 2012
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Last Thursday, I was lucky to be one creative cog among many in the wonderfully un-defineable local phenomenon known as "The End of the Dial Tone Radical Experimental Collaborative Music Band Band" at The Rusty Hook.

Besides being great fun at every upredictable moment, this project has taught me about the art of leadership that's creative, effective and enduring. I'd like to share those lessons as best I can, as well some tantalizing photos and live-art from the evening, and attempt to describe the experience itself.

What is "The End of the Dial Tone?" In its own words:

A collaborative performance deconstruction of the traditional musical jam, featuring musical egos in free fall. Comprised of top-tier musicians who wouldn’t normally play together----totally unrehearsed---in a venue-agnostic nomadic musical caravanserai.

Total sensory meltdown.

Personally, I haven't seen any event that rivals this for originality, spontaneous energy and continuous evolution in this community. (Check out TWIS contributor Jessi Smith's "Behind the Scenes" article for more background.)

Beneath the surface, to me the Dial Tone is a mini-model of community at its best.  I'm REALLY into community. And artists. These two passions motivated me to join with like-minded artists in 2010 and form Uprise Art Collective. Building an organization with a small group of other people has been one of the greatest challenges and joys of my life. One of the things that has kept me going is to be able to know and watch other people who are making things happen based on their passion. John Lichtenstein of The End of the Dial Tone is one of those people.

What is "Leadership," anyway?

This is an important point I need to quickly explore. I don't want to fall into a common trap of thinking on leadership. That is, thinking that these people---"leaders," as we call them---are a unique breed of people with magical powers to bring people together and make things happen. In the book Everybody Leads, Public Allies founder Paul Schmitz offers a new way of thinking about of leadership: rather than a role for a special and select few, it's a set of actions that anybody can take. Schmitz lists three new ways of seeing leadership:

  1. Leadership is an action many can take, not a position few can hold.
  2. Leadership is about taking responsibility---personal and social---to work with others for common goals.
  3. Leadership is about the practice of values that engage community members and groups to work effectively toward common goals.

The reason I think this is so important is that our times call for leadership, and our old way of seeing and trying to engage leadership is not keeping up with the demand. Also, it's just not as fun to wait around for magical leader people to make things happen. Schmitz writes, "It is our goal to change both the face and the practice of leadership, thus unleashing the energy of thousands of leaders who have the skills not just to build programs and organizations, but also to build community capacity and sustainable solutions."I know that you may not think a regular artistic improv project fits what many of us think is a "world-changing" effort. More on that later. Basically, leadership to me is about making things happen. The Dial Tone has been happening for over a year now, with a consistent and consistently enthusiastic cast of performers and fans. Its success points to something being done right that, in my view, applies across the board to other kinds of community efforts.

Here are the things I've noticed from  John Lichtenstein and the Dial Tone about creative, effective leadership:

1. Be a little selfish

In other words, if you're going to undertake an idea together with others, you don't have to be Mother Theresa. Make it about something you actually want to do yourself. Just by creating a space for people to join you in some kind of activity---whether its playing music, knitting, walking your dog or figuring out ways to end homelessness---you will be improving the world.When you realize it will be more fun, more interesting, more creative and effective with other people doing it with you, you have a good starting formula for a great project. John's a musician. While he's motivated by the desire to see more local musicians playing together, and could probably explain to you how that benefits the community, he also has a "selfish" desire to play with other musicians too.

And that's okay! In fact, I'd say its crucial. If he were doing all the legwork it takes to pull off not only the Dial Tone events but also the elaborate and equally outside-the-box promo video shoots out of a general humanitarian desire that never hit on the things he enjoys doing most, I'm pretty sure he would have burned out after the first couple of shows.

Furthermore, not only does making that choice help initiators not burn out---it provides an ever-available source of energy from within that person that is also a magnet for others. In other words, by starting with your own passion, you are more likely to attract others who have that passion, because the energy is already there---in you and in them. While in one sense I do participate in the Dial Tone because it's something I believe in, it meets my own "selfish" needs and motives: I get to make art together with others, I get recognized for my contribution and I get to develop my skills.  (Show off time: here are some of my drawings from evening!)Artist Van Jazmin shared with me that he participates because, "Being a cartoon artist is so restrictive, having to always restrict myself to what the client wants ... I like being there and drawing what inspires me---and that is what people want to see! Being in there in the room and creating things that are desirable both to the project and to me."

This "selfish seed"/"magnet" approach also saves energy. You don't have to add the task of convincing others that your project is something they should join---they are already ready to jump in. In my opinion, we've forgotten that having and acting upon our own personal interest, skill, or passion is a good thing in itself, and the action of acting upon that interest, skill or passion in concert with others in a community setting should be celebrated as highly as "selfless" philanthropy and other more traditional models of social contribution.

2. Be willing to work ... AND play

The second lesson I've learned is that you must be serious, and you must be at play. People won't join you---or if they join you, they won't stay around for long---if you're not willing to do the legwork required to make a vision a reality. At the same time, since every project involves work, unexpected hang-ups and personalities. If there is no  play, experimentation or fun, no one will stick around. Your project will feel arduous and sapped of its initial inspired energy.I always enjoy checking in with John because he'll inevitably begin sharing with me a few of the puzzles he's busy trying to figure out in preparation for the project. He's in constant internal motion envisioning and working out how to execute each vision. He's playing with ideas with the underlying goal to find something that works. At shows he can be seen moving around with focus and determination. He makes clear requests of participants and he gives clear directions when needed. By being serious about the task at hand and holding himself to high standard of execution, he inspires the same attitude in me. I take my drawing more seriously because he's laid that groundwork.

At the same time, the Dial Tone is all about play: musicians, artists, and writers "playing together."The dictionary defines the verb "play" as "to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose." I think most of the genius and sustainability of the Dial Tone comes from its spirit of playfulness, experimentation, and activity for the sake of it.  I can be a very serious and practical person, and so I am not downplaying projects that have a "serious or practical purpose" (mine does)---but if we think about the ancient wisdom that "it's not the destination but the journey that matters," we can see that any objective, however serious, needs a path toward it that's paved with enjoyment.3. Mobilize the talents and skills of othersI think that the Dial Tone works because it centers itself around giving full play to the talents of the people involved. Rather than dictating what form each performance should take, John takes stock of who has which talents and calls upon them to create something together which no one can predict. There is a clear goal, and John has set himself up to do what he does best (coordinating and playing guitar) and intentionally created a place for each performer to do what they do best.

Sort of like the first point about being selfish in our impulse to start something, this way of organizing a project provides a constantly fresh stream of energy because, well, everybody likes to be able to do what they're best at and to be recognized and celebrated for their gifts. What's more, people enjoy watching others display their talents.

4. Do what's needed to ensure collaborative action

I did say earlier that it's okay to be selfish and it's even a good thing. But the magic of the Dial Tone is also that it effectively creates a platform for  collaboration. There is a natural tendency---innate human or socialized, I'm not sure---for selfish showmanship to the detriment of other talents. I think that part of what John is doing works because he is willing to clearly remind people of the goal of the project and challenge them to become collaborative beings.Before the show on Thursday night, all musicians and artists were called out the back door for a kind of huddle, where John reminded us of the vision for  the show and to achieve this vision, we needed to work together. Musicians should listen to each other. Listening includes paying attention to how other musicians are relating, and aiding their collaboration. For instance, if another two musicians are getting particularly in sync at a given point in time, back off. Let them do their thing.An effective leader needs to have the courage and insight to know when to remind people to check their egos and act in a way that contributes to the the outcome of the whole.  My friend Rishi Sekton of the NY/NJ arts collective Studio 2012 told me that they have an "Ego Room," where any core member can be sent during a meeting if they get too sucked into a "me over y'all" mood or mindset.

Okay---so where does all of this analyzing leave me, you and us?  

I think it's a handy set of reminders and  inspirations for how the times may be shifted in a way that's enduring, effective and fun.

Notice I did not say "easy"---I'm positive John would agree that no Dial Tone show or promo video shoot is easy.  But there's the other stuff that makes it worth doing again ... and again and again. That is,

  1. It meets the personal needs and desires of the original instigator and people who join in.
  2. It is focused and playful enough to be both effective and enjoyable.
  3. It mobilizes people's talents and skills, creating a powerful creative energy and momentum, and
  4. It is intentionally collaborative in nature.
These are lessons I take with me into my own community work. And I look forward to being a part of this project's evolution---to being part of an ongoing experiment who's direction no one can predict---not even the organizer.

Why don't you join me at the next one?  To stay in the loop, Follow them on Facebook.

And please share in the comments below ... Does this strike any chord with you?  What do you notice that's worth sharing about people you see making things happen in the community?  What do you define as leadership, and how do you think it's changing face (if at all)?~


Event Page with full artist line-up

Promo video for March 1st Show

Third Eye Projections

Scott Braun Photography

Aprilart Studios

Public Allies


Photos by Van Jazmin, Third Eye Projectioins


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