The Music of Leadership

I’ve found there are several ways where tone awareness can benefit leaders and organizations.

Music not only “hath charms to soothe a savage beast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak” (William Congreve), rhythmical principles can elevate your leadership. And you don’t have to play an instrument or sing to realize positive gains.

You might have heard that music’s shown to energize groups (think political and other campaigns), calm angry people, promote healing of illness, and more. A 2008 study by Dr. Michael Miller, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, “found a pretty impressive effect— when people listened to their favorite music, their blood vessels dilated in much the same way as when taking blood medications.”

Lifelong professional musician and master voice instructor Mark Bosnian teaches his students select singing performance methods that energize and significantly move others.

Others have noted the leadership-music connection. In his book “Leadership Jazz,” Max DuPree, former CEO/chairman of Herman Miller, likened best organizational behavior to a smooth band.

In a similar tone, trumpet great Wynton Marsalis has applied what he’s learned in musical practice “Leadership Lessons,” such as: “Belief in other people’s creativity allows people around you to be themselves and achieve their individuality. . . .You can’t look at any person and tell whether they can play. All kinds of people can play; some of the best talent can be found in the most unexpected places. . . . Respect the freedom of other people and their creativity; giving your staff the freedom to improvise opens the floodgates on innovation.”

As a lifelong amateur musician (my theme song: “No matter how bad things seem, it’s a good day when I get to make music”), I’ve found there are several ways where tone awareness can benefit leaders and organizations:

1. Create interest by mastering the music of change. Attention continuously changes in musical compositions but usually cycles back to the original theme. In other words, the best music—as well as most effective organizational interventions—alternate changing verses with a core of repetition (often in the chorus). Similarly, if you want to change behavior, you’ve got to engage in repeat practice that is slightly different, varied, never boring—but still repeats your desired theme.

2. Balance listening and playing to develop team effectiveness. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh said, “There has to be a balance when you move back and forth between listening and playing . . . you have to have the level of communication that comes with a long association and the willingness to listen more than you play.”

3. Become more rhythmical. First-level rhythm requires the same steady beat. Higher levels change pace through syncopation and well-timed rests (or even moments of silence). Similarly, a leadership style that is monotone or mono-paced will lull others rather than engaging and exciting them. Best leaders aren’t haphazard or unpredictable, but they don’t get stuck in playing the same old song, not matter how well received it was a decade ago.

4. Engage people beyond just their intellect. Greatest leaders move people on deeper levels than reason. While there are many songs with wonderful and touching lyrics, there are immensely successful artists (Neil Young, Nirvana, and Steely Dan come immediately to mind) whose words are clearly secondary to the melody and beat. Other composers may be great lyricists, but without strong music, positive words are less likely to move people to another level.

Renowned composer and conductor Lorin Maazel explained, “To bring performers past the limitations of their own potential is leadership. All fine leaders conducting from the podium have that. Emotion is what it’s all about. Music-making without emotion and passion is nothing. I’m never looking for a perfect performance, I’m looking for an impassioned performance.”

5. Balance preparation and structure with spontaneity. Though adept musicians thoroughly rehearse, they don’t play each piece note for note and rarely play the same song the same way twice. And don’t try just to play everything in unison. One musician said the secret of his band’s success was “We don’t play the same as each other, we play around a common center.”

Best delegators expect individual slants in how others approach their part of a task in the same way that singing in best harmony entails maintaining a strong relationship with others rather than singing at the same exact pitch. As long as it’s around the desired “common center.”

How do you develop some of the aforementioned musical leadership qualities? Listen to music with new ears. Sing or “play” with others, especially master musicians (this can be on the radio). Take music lessons from an expert teacher. Speak with others in your company who are long-term or newer musicians. Watch for and become more attuned to beats, harmonies, and discordance in your company’s culture.

The best leaders know what they do for themselves directly affects others. If you’re singing a dull song or warbling out of your range (e.g., forays into areas you don’t really understand), others will become dispirited or disconnected. Conversely, if you’re inspired and excited yourself, moving to the beat of your own keyboard, it’s likely others will, as well.

By building your solo leadership skills, setting the right tone, working in new ways in concert with others, you can help people tune up greater effectiveness, safety, and unity.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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