Kai Kight

5 questions to gauge leadership performance

Embrace the 'red pen,' conference keynoter advises.

June 17, 2019

Violinist Kai Kight grew up as a traditional classical violinist, playing nothing but Mozart and Beethoven.

But his favorite part of performing came during the orchestra warmup, when he improvised with abandon.

“That was my showtime,” says Kight, who addressed America’s Credit Union Conference Monday at the Walt Disney® Resort in Florida.

While his conductor and stand partner didn’t always appreciate his efforts, Kight credits this time as his entrance into composing original music.

“After years with the violin, I started to bring my own sounds into the world.”


This experience applies to credit union leaders as well. Kight urges them to ask questions about their own leadership performance:

  • When it comes to your life and work, are you writing new music or simply playing the notes that have already been written?

    “Are you doing everything you can to bring new ideas forward or just playing the notes you’ve been handed?” Kight asks. “Are you coming up with new ideas?”
  • What do you do when someone wants to change the music you’ve written? What if employees or members have ideas that take you in a different direction?

    “I struggle with this,” he admits. “I’m energized by creativity, but it can feel like a threat. It’s an amazing contradiction: I start to squeeze out the qualities I initially found attractive.”

    Kight takes a page from Mozart in this regard. “He would add a cadenza where performers can improvise and add their own ideas to the mix and bring their music forward. Maybe that’s why his music has lasted for centuries.”
  • When it comes to the performers around you—employees, members, your partner, or your children—do you want them to just play your notes, or can they bring their own music into the world?

    “Determine how you can create a cadenza for the people in your life,” Kight advises.
  • Do you use your “red pen”—i.e., offer constructive criticism—when the music sounds the harshest?

    Not doing so is a disservice to the people in your life, Kight says. Offering constructive criticism is an optimistic act because it shows people they have the potential to improve.
  • What do you do when someone uses the red pen on you?

    “What do you do when you’re criticized on the very thing that gives you a sense of pride? I often run from the red pen because it might vocalize a truth about myself I already know,” he says. “Progress is the ability to not lie to ourselves.”

Beethoven, for example, would write dozens of drafts in pencil to allow himself time and space to change his ideas, Kight says. “His genius was not in perfection but the ability to give himself space to be wrong.

“Most of us won’t harness our genius because we try so hard to avoid the red pen,” he continues. “Challenge yourself. Ask yourself, ‘where am I avoiding the red pen?'"

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