1 Big Lesson from the Back-Up Singers

Recently, there has been much fanfare about the importance of back-up singers. In fact there is a new documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, that pays tribute to these nameless though gifted performers who stood 20 feet from everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Michael Jackson. The publicity has been enormous for these women who have given selflessly for decades, in some cases as long as 40 years. These are the unsung heroes who help the multi-platinum artists create their images, their sounds, and ultimately their iconic labels. And yet, like so many individuals in life, they will never be household names, have buildings or streets named after them, or reach the financial levels of success to which they perhaps initially aspired when they entered the music business. And yet, their roles are undeniable and indispensable.

The truth is, all of us have “back-up singers” in our lives. These are the individuals who prop us up, who help us look good, and who help “round out our sound.” These are the individuals who stand in the shadows supporting our every move. These are the individuals who help keep us organized, on time, focused, and well-presented. These are the individuals who lay the ground work, tie up loose ends, and ensure we deliver what we promise on time and under budget. These are the individuals who are our right hand. We know who these individuals are; and in most cases I choose to believe we are grateful – publicly and privately – for their contributions and the value they bring.

Of course, I realize not everyone is cut out to be the star, nor does everyone choose or want to be the star. Different horses for different courses. Yet, what I have noticed and admire about these back-up singers is one single trait. It is a trait that every truly successful back up singer has, and from which I believe each of us can learn AND integrate into our own lives.

What is it?

First, let’s paint the picture: these back-up singers just plain work hard! They do every video take, every recording, every concert trip, and every live show that the stars do; yet they do not get equally compensated or recognized for those long hours. Again, I get it; yes, I am fully aware that in most cases they have chosen this path for themselves. And I know they do get paid healthily for their efforts. However, what drives them to do the work is something not fed by ego. These singers are not and cannot be driven by ego in order to be successful. Their job is to make the other big guy/gal on stage look good, sound good, and be good, and their own recognition is not even a variable. That is what DRIVES them. What a powerful concept.

What could happen in our organizations if we could let go of our idea, concept, or control for the sake of what is good for the collective whole? What would happen on a team if we could let go of needing to have our own way, to be right, and to be the smartest person in the room? What could happen to our team dynamics if we truly TRULY left our egos at the door, and tried to meet and accept everyone where they are? My clients and colleagues have heard me say for years that most executives who fall from grace, trip and fall due to the blinding effect of their egos. We have all seen this movie before – and yet, we keep seeing reruns time and time again in small and large organizations and teams!!

Sure, we all have egos – that is not necessarily a bad thing. But the one big lesson we can learn from the back-up singers in life is to know you have an ego, gain self awareness about it, how it shows itself, and to KEEP IT IN CHECK.

And one final note, when you see your back-up singers this week – show them gratitude. Say thanks. See them – truly see them – for who and all they are. Recognize their talents and the vital importance they play in your life. Without back-up singers, we would have no superstars.

Have you ever experienced a situation where an executive or leader made mistakes due to his/her ego? What happened? What wisdom can you offer and share with us?