Leadership Perspectives

Leadership and music: Being versus doing

March 20, 2012

In my last post, I talked about the need for leaders to get comfortable with ambiguity.  One of the reasons that leaders are often so uncomfortable with ambiguity is that they focus so much on doing, instead of focusing on being.

Being is the character, the beliefs, the YOU that you bring to leadership.  But aspiring leaders try to learn the leadership rule book instead of focusing on the inner competencies that most impact great leadership.

Analogous to music.  The distinction can be a difficult one for the uninitiated, but music offers us a great analogy.

I’m learning to play the piano.  My big ambition is to be able to pick up a piece of sheet music for a song that I like and play it competently.  My piano teacher, Roy, has different ambitions for me.

Recently, Roy said that, while learning a piece of sheet music would undoubtedly help me learn and refine certain motor skills, he wants me to understand what I’ll call the “context” of my music (my words, not his).  He wants me to learn the underlying structure or framework and then build on it and apply it in my way.

He says that this will not only allow me to improvise with other musicians, but to create my own music.  More fundamentally, it will allow me to play with feeling and emotion because the music will be mine.

Because he knows his student well, he lets me work on learning sheet music that I like. At the same time, he insists that I learn music theory and work on simple pieces that I am to modify by applying what I learn.

Learning leadership and learning music.  I smile to myself because I do the same thing when I work with Leaders.  Leaders often, uncomfortable with ambiguity, want me to give them concrete “how-to” information, which is very similar to my desire to have a piece of sheet music in front of me.

But I also urge leaders to attempt to make meaning of what they are learning and to reflect on and personalize new learning so that the learning fundamentally changes how they look at their leadership. While this is the hard work of developing your leadership, in the long term it is what will give you the power to move confidently through uncertainty.

To grow and to learn, both leaders and musicians have to make their own music.  Just as a musician playing music straight from the heart inspires his listeners, an authentic leader that is centered and grounded even in the midst of ambiguity enables her followers.

For the time being, I will probably still work on learning favorite pieces of sheet music as this is my comfort zone (and I really want to nail that Billy Joel song).  But, I put an equal amount of time this week into learning and improvising chord inversions to accompany the  melodies in my book (because I eventually want to play the Billy Joel song like it is my own).

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