Leadership is not about singing Kumbaya

Doing like everybody else can only get you so far. Sometimes you have to learn how to sing a different song.

Steffan Surdek
October 31, 2022
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I noticed a while ago that in some workplaces, there is this perception that leadership is about playing nice with others and not rocking the boat too much.

In other words, in these business environments, it seems like it is best to sit by the fire, roast the marshmallows, be happy and sing Kumbaya along with everybody else.

In this article, I'll talk about how trying to conform with others in your group can be a dangerous thing to look out for in your leadership.

Where are you singing Kumbaya in your life?

Singing Kumbaya can mean not speaking up or not sharing an opposing point of view because you are afraid of the potential backlash. You may fear being seen as a trouble-maker or being excluded by the rest of your team.

How can you discover such places in your life? Look around you. In your daily environment, is there a place you go to because you feel you have to? Is there a place you go to because you feel that you owe it to someone else to be there, but your heart is not in it because it does not feed you and you do not see the purpose of being there?

For you, it may be a weekly team meeting or a management meeting. It could even be that annual family party that you attend just because you have to, or because it will create a mess if you do not go. You would rather go through the motions of being there than deal with the consequences of saying how you feel.

So you go to this place, you pull up a chair close to the fire and you sing Kumbaya. You roast the marshmallows even though you know your heart and mind are actually somewhere else. You see and hear things that make no sense or that make you mad but you still sit there and sing Kumbaya because the alternatives are not something you want to consider.

What are the alternatives?

The first solution is that you could just stop showing up to these places. It may create an initial shockwave but folks will get over it right? The truth of it is some people may not even notice there is one less voice around the fire. Another possibility is that some people may try to guilt you back in because you made a choice that does not even seem possible to them.

The other alternative depends on how much you care about this place. It also requires a lot more courage because it will require you to show up and express what you really believe in. This alternative is to sing a different song and let people know how you truly feel.

You may find that after expressing yourself, people just resume their song right where they left off. You may also find that what you said does not resonate with others at all. However, something else could happen: Other voices may step up to support yours! You will never know until you put yourself out there first though.

What happens when you sing a different song?

Being a leader means there are times when you will be singing a different song. You may even be the only person singing it for a while. Being a leader means there are times when you need to create this disruption for the greater good and in service to others.

Being a leader also means there are times you need to have the courage to disrupt the conformity that can happen in organizations. Before you disrupt anything, get clear on your intentions. You are disrupting this in service of who or in service of what?

A few years ago, I was part of a coaching group that would have weekly calls. It was a great place to hang out with many intelligent people but I would often have this Kumbaya experience during the call.

As a coaching triad, my friends Carrie, David and I, decided to disrupt our weekly call. We expressed our need for change and invited others down the path of changing things to reach another level as a community. The disruption created some noise but it also created a wind of change in the community.

Bringing your disruption with a certain level of mindfulness and respect is key. Create space so that other people can come and sing the new song. Better yet, create enough space for others to be able to write a new song along with you.

Creating a disruption to provoke change takes courage but mindfully choosing to stop singing anymore or not showing up around the camp fire takes courage as well. When enough people willfully decide to stop singing a song, it could mean it is no longer worth singing at all. When some things fade away and disappear new and exciting things have space to emerge.


The danger when you sing Kumbaya is that you risk your team or your organization getting into a culture of conformity. As a leader, learn to recognize the places where you are allowing this to happen.

Identify what that triggers in you. Which places are worth advocating for change? Put your energy into the alternative, which is to sing a different song.

Great leadership is not about going with the flow, and keeping up the song with everybody else. It is about provoking change when it is the most needed.

Where do you sing Kumbaya in your life? Are you going to just keep singing? How could you provoke something new?