Go to a Mumford & Sons concert for the banjo pickin', bass slappin' and floor stompin'. Leave with lessons you’d never expect.
Preparing for a concert by Mumford & Sons, the British “new grass” quartet, I expected the roof to come down. These guys’ glory is that they pick the banjo and smash the bass and stomp the floor like an Appalachian dance hall band rather than a group of west London lads. I even expected a spiritual experience: few musicians, secular or sacred, sing about God with such depth of spirituality without saccharine piety. I’d heard their concerts are like church -- just a whole lot better.
I expected all that. I didn’t expect a lesson in institutional leadership.
First, Mumford & Sons honored us as an audience. We’ve all seen bands that look put out to be performing for us, even though we paid through the nose to be there. Mumford repeatedly not only thanked us -- they were almost giddy with the size of the audience at the Asheville Civic Center. They said we were the largest venue they’d ever headlined (they’ve opened for others in far larger). Lead singer Marcus Mumford said, “I know it’s a cliché, but I wish you could see how beautiful you are from here.” Band members repeatedly promised to come back to Asheville -- a perfect site for the group’s combination of retro and hard country rock. At one point Mumford pointed out what a “lovely” venue we were in. Up until then I’d thought it sort of a shabby 60s era bandbox. Suddenly I looked around and found it beautiful. By the end, I felt the group was genuinely honored to be with us.
Not a bad lesson for leaders who walk around looking like they just swallowed a slightly tart fruit. Honor those who've put in the effort to be with you. You’ll do much better if you walk around looking like the luckiest Brit in the mountains.
Two, they tried to go local. This was slightly awkward. They admitted they’d never been to Asheville before, but they tried to meet us on our terms. “North Carolina is better than America!” one announced, unaware that putting down America is never a way to draw a cheer in America. In another case they had a roadie come up to the mic and talk to show us how odd his specific English accent was. To our ear it was just another British dude, but the band kept cracking up at his voice. “It’s sort of like a Texan accent here, right?” No idea. But he was trying. Finally the band said they’d play a song from their favorite North Carolina band for their encore. They belted out the Avett Brothers’ “Go to Sleep” like they’d sung it their whole lives. We roared -- our guests were playing our music, again, honoring us.
Another lesson: Incarnate yourself, your language, your humor, in the local dialect. This will make for mistakes, as some of their comments did. But it almost doesn’t matter. You get credit for trying; whether you do perfectly is far less important.
Third, Mumford honored those they worked with, even those far less likely to get noticed walking around on the streets of Asheville. Like the roadie mentioned above, Ivan, whom they praised and thanked before leading him to the mic. Marcus Mumford praised another roadie as unbelievably hard-working, making the band’s whole tour possible. Each time he praised a roadie Mumford also teased him: “It’s too bad he’s such a jerk.” His endearing jab doubled as a public accolade.
The lesson here should be obvious. The “stars” are actually not only nothing special -- they’re completely useless without the much harder working people who make the whole show possible. Thank them. Repeatedly. Publicly. With sincere kindness.
Mumford also honored the opening bands, neither of whom deserved it to my mind. “During their sets I watched them from vantages all over the arena and marveled that I got to watch some of my favorite bands.” Everyone around me immediately heard what he didn’t say -- he was here! Among us! Walking around watching (minus his concert getup vintage vest and tie, alas)! Think of all the people-watching you do at a concert, all the people you notice. None of us had noticed among us the very man we’d come to see, but there he was, enjoying the show.
That’s how to lead. Be among your people. Be inconspicuous. Enjoy the show they came to enjoy. Honor them for coming. Honor those who play with you. And then thank God for the blessing (their word) that people spend their money and their time to come sing and sway and praise to your lead.
Jason Byassee is a fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference.