Do it like Tito Puente

This winter, while spending some time in Florida, my wife and I went to a show put on by Tito Puente. She said she bought tickets because Puente is a guitar player and I have been taking guitar lessons. (Turns out he is a drummer, but we had a wonderful time anyway.) His father was also Tito Puente, who I remembered from the late ’50s and ’60s as a great salsa musician. The son saluted the father with love and respect many times during the evening.

So this theater in Stuart, Fla., The Lyric, held five hundred to six hundred people. We probably got the last tickets to be had, and were seated up in the balcony, just a few feet from the ceiling. Puente’s band had three trumpets, a sax, a guitar, a base, a piano, two guys on bongos, and probably a couple more I can’t remember. And of course, Puente himself on drums. For more than an hour, the decibel level in that old hall was in the stratosphere. The people in the seats couldn’t keep still … they were jumping, twisting and writhing whether sitting or standing. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

Each of the band members had a solo or two, some more, and Puente cheered them on mightily. The piano and the horns were sensational. The bongo players made those little drums talk and the crowd went crazy. And all the while, Puente – in a full suit and tie – wailed on the drums with, what at times, seemed like four or five sticks. The band had to be wearing down as the crowd got wilder.

 What really got me was the big finish. Puente took off his suit jacket, got a towel and wiped his face. As he stepped away from center stage and his drum setup, he invited one of the bongo players to sit at the maestro’s drums. The bongo player stepped into Puente’s territory, picked up his sticks and began to play. His sound was different than Puente’s, but at least as good, if not better. Puente was swinging his towel in the air, leading cheers for the drummer, and the crowd loved it.

Then he did it again. Puente got the other bongo player to move over to his drums and play. The same thing happened, only it was better. The crowd amped up again, and Puente heard their roars. The band members all went back to their normal places and played one more, each featured one last time. The crowd was entertained, the band had a ball – everybody was happy.

And I think Puente was pleased. Why? Because he seemed to understand that a leader’s job is not to be better than everyone on the team, but to bring out the best in each team member and thus make each successful. He is good enough to have the top spot in any salsa band, but if he couldn’t build a team, he would be traveling as a one-man show.

Going to that concert reminded me of a basic leadership principle: Leaders are good at building people and team, not at climbing to the top over others.

So what now? How does one go about building people up? Here are some ideas: 

Spend quality time and get to know your people well enough to get honest answers to questions like: What are your long and short-term goals?

Exchange your aspirations for theirs. Something like: I will help you where I can if you will help me achieve my goals with this team.

Exchange ideas often to uncover how things are going for both parties. Ask: How am I doing? After listening to the answer and ask the same question of him/her.

Do like Puente – Help each team (/band) member look good. Challenge them.

Make a pact of “No surprises.” Don’t forget important details, like, for example: We are hiring a new person at your level. And you will not surprise me by not telling me about a missed target or a problem employee. You will be happy to discover how comfortable a “No surprises” agreement makes everyone feel.

Finally, just enjoy the music of a team working together in harmony.

Categories: Magazine Articles, Management & Leadership