John, Mary and Lionel…

John (not his real name) had been coming to piano lessons since the age of 8. He was talented, musical and diligent, but for some reason always had trouble perfecting a piece. He told me he had trouble focusing, and that his mind had a tendency to wander, leading to a loss of concentration and then mistakes.

And it bugged him. He was someone who liked to get things right, and so mistakes frustrated him. He talked about leaving a few times but between my efforts and those of his parents he ended up staying until well into his teenage years.

One day he told me he wanted to get involved in the Teenage Theme Nights – the musical events I run for teenage musicians in The Model and The Hawk’s Well. While on the outside I was enthusiastic and encouraging, on the inside I was nervous, because I knew that if this didn’t go well for him, it could be the end of his piano-playing days.

But what I didn’t know was that Mary (also not her real name) had asked him to accompany her. And so this time it wasn’t just about learning a piece, it was about impressing Mary – a higher cause in John’s mind. And he nailed it – all the promise I had seen over the years came out that evening as he played the piece without one error.


For the same reason why students who genuinely want to learn piano do better at lessons than students who are sent by their parents. Or why companies give performance-related financial bonuses to employees. Or why you see a bigger outpouring of emotion from the players at a poorly-attended county final than you do after the Champions League final in one of Europe’s great stadiums.

Enrolment. Being invested in the outcome.

And so if you’re in a leadership position – possibly a teacher who wants to get better engagement from your students, or a coach looking to get the best from your players, you need to firstly use empathy to figure out what will enroll the people you are looking to change and then somehow bring that very thing into their environment.

But it’s not easy. Because even if Lionel Messi learned how to play Gaelic Football and came to live in Ransboro, he wouldn’t have the same deep desire to win a county final for Coolera-Strandhill that someone living there all their life did. So you’d have to appeal to some other part of his nature. Or if Elizabeth saw John accompanying Mary and now wants him to accompany her, how does John bring the same level of performance if he doesn’t want to impress Elizabeth like he did Mary?

It’s personal, unique to each individual, and most probably will be different to what works for you, but if you can tap into what makes people tick, your ability to lead, coach or teach will be greatly enhanced.

PS – I’m currently accepting enrolments for the new Teenage Theme Night 2020-21 programme. The first show of the new school year will take place at the end of Nov so please email me ASAP to get involved.