“Mama Jan” Smith: Leading with Authenticity

Ginger Schlanger

31 August 2016

Jan Smith, national vocal coach, producer and artist, is well-known for exhibiting the values of Leaders Worth Following, starting with authenticity. This weekend, Atlanta celebrated a music industry icon – Jan Smith (known to thousands of vocal artists simply as, “Mama Jan”). Mama Jan is the woman behind Jan Smith Studios, and she has coached, developed and/or produced more chart-topping artists than any other vocal producer or vocal coach in the business. Names like Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20); Usher; Justin Bieber; Shania Twain; The Band Perry; Drake; Terrance Howard; Collective Soul – the list goes on and on. Yet, Jan is equally passionate about leading and developing new artists – as well as people who just love to sing.

I met Jan in 1986, because I wanted to take voice lessons. She was a one-woman shop back then, and today she employs a staff of 12 vocal coaches – all trained and developed under her leadership.

The celebration on Saturday night honored Jan’s 30 years of pouring into thousands of musicians and vocalists from coast to coast. In fact, Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal honored Jan with a special commendation for her leadership of artists and her positive impact on the growth of the music industry in Georgia. The evening also celebrated Jan’s 60th birthday; however, Jan was not about to have a night that was all about her. True to her “Beyond You” leadership – one of the seven behaviors that Leadercast believes helps define a Leader Worth Following – Jan turned the evening into a fundraiser for one of her vocal coaches at Jan Smith Studios, raising money for Erica Hoffman, who is fighting stage IV colon cancer.

Throughout the evening, videos played from nearly 100 artists and musicians who had sent their gratitude and birthday wishes to Mama Jan, including the musical directors for The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson! They told how she transformed their lives, helped them find their voice, and showed them how to navigate the music industry with courage and integrity. The one quality that was mentioned over and over again by musicians and industry leaders is Jan’s authenticity.

If you saw her in the Justin Bieber documentary, Never Say Never, you saw Jan’s authenticity when she made the tough call to cancel a 17,000 seat sold-out at the New York Fair, because Justin was losing his voice. Jan recognized the need to protect his vocal cords because Justin had an even bigger show at Madison Square Garden just a week away. As she says in her Leadercast Now video, “It was about helping Justin understand that there are some things that are worth backing out of so that tomorrow is better. Teaching people that instant gratification works in some situations, but not always in life; it’s about what is going to make you better tomorrow or the next week or the next year, so that you can have longevity.” In an industry where people don’t always get to hear what they NEED to hear, Jan tells it like it is, because she truly, deeply cares about artists – enough to always be that voice of reason. (By the way, it is also a testament to Jan’s integrity that I am NOT a vocalist today. After my second vocal lesson, Jan stood up, looked me in the eye, and told me to keep my day job as a corporate writer.)

Jan embodies these leadership behaviors and values even when nobody’s looking – the true indication of a leader. She also humbly admits that she has certainly fallen and failed over the years. Today, her commitment to her faith is also a key driver of the way she leads others: in addition to integrity and authenticity, there’s discipline, people-first and excellence.

“Being able to be honest with people about your own walk is one of the things that I’ve done with my clients – telling them about my own walk and my own shortcomings and not being afraid to say, ‘I’ve fallen from grace in my life, too’ allows them to relate to me as a human being and then they trust me more. So I think that being a good leader also means not being afraid of your own shortcomings.”

View all of the Leadercast Now videos from Jan Smith or browse the topics that most resonate with you, and take your leadership to a whole new level.

*Cover photo courtesy of Kimberly Evans Photography

Ginger Schlanger

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