The content of character

Say it's so, Joe . . .The great former St. Louis Cardinals MVP third-baseman and all-star manager Joe Torre, when discussing baseball teams, said, “Chemistry does not create winning; winning creates chemistry.”

Sage words, too, for pipe bands.

It’s funny how pipe band people get along so well when they win a lot, and how they crumble when they don’t. We see it all the time when bands are upgraded, especially in those making the jump from Grade 2 to Grade 1. Almost always, the band was winning everything in Grade 2 one year, and the next season becomes a distant also-ran in Grade 1.

That “fun” that everyone was having suddenly becomes not-so-fun, and all the back-slapping people did when they were winning turns into back-stabbing. The band’s chemistry fractures into cliques, the pipers stop talking to the drummers, and the biggest camp tries to take control, ousting the leader.

It’s true of leadership itself. If you take a look at the world’s most successful bands they have a major thing in common: leadership continuity. Terry Lee, Richard Parkes, Robert Mathieson, Terry Tully, Bill Livingstone . . . all of them have been in charge of their bands for more than 20 years.

It’s not a recent phenomenon. Over time, there have been numerous examples of consistent winning with steady leadership: Iain McLeod, Tom McAllister, Bob Hardie, John McAllister, Iain MacLellan . . . none of these greats were flash-in-the-pans.

I’d also bet that most of these guys have or had steady professional careers and enduring personal relationships.

Based on what I have observed, some possible advice to bands recruiting a new leader would be to search for someone with demonstrated commitment and consider these questions:

  • How many bands has he/she played with?
  • How many jobs has the person held?
  • Does the candidate stay with personal relationships or regularly fall out with people?
  • How did he/she do in school?
  • Has the person contributed to the piping and drumming scene in ways that go beyond personal achievements?

These are all indicators of the content of the potential leader’s character.

Without fail, the bands that have leadership changes have mixed results. And mixed results mean not winning consistently. Not winning consistently results in loss of chemistry, which means loss of fun, dissension and a rush to make leadership changes. With some bands, it’s a cycle.

Too often, too, bands tend to look outside of their membership for a new leader. They want the guy with all the solo medals or creative juices, and they often overlook the stalwart, long-serving member who has stuck with the group through thick and thin, the guy who understands that the “band” is much more than just winning.

Admittedly, bands do look internally first, only to find that no one is willing to make the commitment required of a pipe-major. That’s another topic, but suffice it to say that every band should have someone ready, willing and able to take over, and every pipe-major should groom his or her successor.

When it comes to effective leadership, commitment and continuity and confidence are far more important in a leader than superior playing ability and creativity. If the committed leader is not a great player or composer, he or she will most certainly have the management skills and self-confidence to find and surround him or herself with the needed talent.

Great chemistry starts with winning, and winning happens – over time – with well chosen, committed leadership.

The give and take

pipes|drums isn’t my job, but I do strive for professionalism. One of the hardest things about it, though, is reporting on the news of the death of a friend. Inevitably, as we get older, that sort of close-to-home news will become increasingly common.

Yesterday was a rough day for the piping world, and especially for Ontario. I think that almost everyone who knew Scott MacAulay and Willie Connell would have been aware of their illnesses and that the odds of long-term survival were not good. In that sense, we were dreading but anticipating the bad news, but it hit nonetheless hard.

After ensuring that relatives are aware of the news, the 10 minutes that it takes to write the news story are for me something of an emotionless blur. I try to be professional, and distance myself from my personal upset and focus on the task at hand. But after the news is published, I’m immediately hit with sadness and reflection. It sinks in, but the sorrow starts to give way to appreciation when mutual friends start chiming in by phone and e-mail about fun times and fond memories.

That’s what yesterday was like after I heard of Scott’s passing. I cycled home from work as usual through the bustle of downtown Toronto traffic only to be punched again with the news of Willie Connell’s death. And the draining process of matter-of-fact reporting giving way to reflection started all over again.

I take solace in the fact that pipes|drums has become a focal point for the world’s pipers and drummers. That people can and do share their memories  of and tributes to those who have left us is a comfort, and it’s the dialogue aspect of the online magazine that I personally like the most. I know that Scott was a big fan of the magazine, and loved to monitor the lively debate. I also know that Willie was often at odds with some (if not most!) of the magazine’s non-old-school opinions, but I know that he, too, followed the discussions closely.

These two people gave a lot to me, and I am glad that, in whatever small way, I was able to provide something for them in return.

Cap’s on

Formidable!Judging from the dozens of comments about the pipes up-down-up rule and the thought of changing it, the subject of dress and deportment in competition is surprisingly contentious as piping and drumming evolves.

A few years ago I wrote a Blogpipe post that was intended to be funny about the fact that pipe bands from Pakistan and Spain come to the World’s and are allowed to wear their national costume. Now, reading it again, there’s a lot to that.

The Breton bands wear quite smart trousers and double-breasted waistcoats. It’s all allowed, since the RSPBA has no provision for bands having to wear “Highland” dress; they simply say bands should be in uniform.

So, in effect, bands can wear what they want as long as they strive to have every player look the same (which never happens, because there are always two or three odd sporrans and a few folks with a tie from another band after they traded their own), and provided the RSPBA’s National Council approves it.

I don’t know one piper or drummer who prefers to compete while wearing a jacket. The more encumbered a piper or drummer is, the more difficult it is to play his or her instrument, and playing the instrument is the task at hand.

Besides, the uniforms of bands from Brittany and Spain and the like are a welcome added variety at the World’s. People I think enjoy seeing a change from the conventional ersatz Victorian-military derivative ensemble that makes the Scottish, US and Commonwealth-country bands look pretty much all the same. Now that Bagad Cap Caval has won the Grade 2 event and may well be required to compete in Grade 1 next year, does their more comfortable uniform give them a decided playing advantage? I think so, and they have the right idea.

Why can’t the currently kilted pipe bands have two uniforms – the predictable tartan one for performances, and another one – equally smart – that’s more conducive to good playing in competition?

To bring about this change, most people think a Grade 1 band will need to do it first. And that might well happen in 2009.