What great leadership and music have in common
Music is all-consuming. Our reaction to a great song can be so visceral that we are forever connected to it. Hearing that song can bring you back to a moment in time, and often, it binds you to a person too; every time you hear it, you are there with them again, reliving a wonderful moment. This is something every leader aspires to do with those around them as well: to inspire and move people like great music does.
In 1996, I watched a concert with singers from around the world, including Zucchero and Pavarotti. I was amazed by the performers — but beyond that, I was enthralled by the leadership lessons embedded in the music. That concert helped me frame these lessons, which pull together stories and insights from some of the great people I’ve worked with.
1. A leader is both a singer and a songwriter.
People don’t really listen unless there is an emotional impact that causes them never to forget. As a leader you have to touch people’s hearts as well as their heads. What you say, the lyrics, must tell a meaningful story — and the way you tell that story, the music, must resonate in the heart of the listener.
Many executives tend to deal more with the mind and not so much with the heart. One executive I’ve worked with is really, really good at solving for this. He’s the company’s founder and is looked at by everyone as the person in charge. Yet in every company-wide meeting, he talks about what the company has accomplished as a whole, and he calls out other people in very positive ways. He focuses on their values and their commitment to excellence. It is the music of his leadership, and it is subtle but powerful.
He pays attention to the little things. For example, he asked a nutritionist to study the snacks in the company break room and make sure all of them provided nutritional value. It’s one thing to tell people “we care about you” — it’s another thing when somebody is paying that kind of attention. Every time you go into the break room, you know you’re cared for. It’s a decision that’s been made intellectually, but it impacts you emotionally because you know it’s in your best interest. That’s the music.
Ted Turner was another leader who was really good at this. His counter-intuitive insights forced people to think in ways that touched people’s hearts beyond normal business decisions. I was asked to help frame a strategic workshop that ultimately led to the creation of CNN and headline news on a global scale. At one point in the discussion, the company’s MBA-educated executives in the room were thinking: “Okay, we need to figure out how we’re going to broadcast in German, in Chinese, etc.” And Ted Turner, as only Ted could, says, “Y’know, I know that’s what they taught you in business school, but we’re not going to do that. How many of you have ever heard of the Tower of Babel?” All these executives looked at each other as if to say: “What is he talking about?” Ted went on: “We’re going to broadcast CNN in English in order to teach the world a common language, so that people can understand each other and create peace in the world.” You could see the intellectual business argument immediately dissolve and the music take hold. Trust me, nobody has forgotten that moment in the history of that company — nobody.
2. Make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music.
At the concert, every violin player, drummer and singer knew why they were there and what their role was. The result was harmony. The same is necessary in any organization. Each employee needs to be on the same page. And that page must be seen, understood and emotionally absorbed.
When I first start working with any new company, I go onsite and talk with the key people and write a report about what I have learned. In my first conversations with one particular company, I asked 15 people: “What’s the vision of this company?” I got fifteen different answers. So I wrote my report, and recommended that the executive I was working with should take this group offsite for a workshop, to create a vision statement and set three strategic goals they could commit to. Eighteen months later, I came back and interviewed this group and a few more people, a total of thirty employees. This time when I asked them what the company vision was, everyone had the same answer. Everyone was on the same sheet of music and understood how their role and the role of others created strategic harmony.
3. Develop a simple theme — then repeat it.
Have you ever noticed how a song’s lyrics repeat themselves over and over again? They become so familiar that you sing along; you absorb them into your being. An effective vision statement does the same thing. As a leader, you need to put it in language so everybody can “see” it and understand it. And get it into everybody’s hands. Remember that company that had 15 different ideas of what the vision was? When they developed their new vision statement, the CEO held a company-wide meeting for it. He said, “Every time you make a decision within your own department, ask one question: ‘Does it line up with our objectives?’” If you go into his employees’ workspaces today, they have that vision statement on a card in their offices. What’s amazing is, they can tell you the vision and the key strategic objectives without even looking at the card. It has become part of who they are and how they do what they do.
It’s the job of a leader to get a team to see and feel the mission, vision or task. People tend to focus on the familiar, on their previous experience. You need to get their attention on the vision — and keep it. They have to hear and see what you are after, over and over again, until that story becomes so dominant that they commit it to memory and their focus is absolute and intuitive.
The vision should be one sentence long, simple and picture-like, or it’s worthless. When General Tommy Franks led the 2003 invasion into Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his vision statement was simple: “Get to Baghdad as fast as you can.” Now that’s visual. He left it up to his individual commanders to figure out how to execute that vision.
4. Get the right players around you.
Playing in the concert were people from many nationalities and ethnic groups, children and senior citizens, women and men, it did not matter. All were dedicated to excellence and being in harmony with one another for a common purpose. Their cultural diversity built a harmony and strength that fed off itself to produce results. It is the same in an organization.
When I used to hire people for my organization, I was always reviewing a pile of resumes. Of course, by the time the resumes got to me they were all good — everyone was equally qualified. So I always asked these final candidates just two questions. First: Tell me about your life. I wanted to hear people talk about who they were, and what formed them. The second question: Rank, in order of importance, the five most important things in your life. Some people would say money, faith, family, etc.; others faith, family, money, etc. Everybody had a different answer. But their stories and answers gave me a clue to their character. I really listened and watched their behavioral response. Once the interview was over and they left the room, I’d ask myself one question: If I’m in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and the boat is in trouble, who do I want in that boat with me? Those are the people I’d hire. They were the people who had the character I could count on when things got tough. Every organization has tough moments. You want people working with you whom you can count on when the tough moments come. I always chose character and attitude over skill, and that insured I always had the right people in the boat.
5. Let others shine.
The concert in Modena, Italy, had three conductors, who were somehow invisible. It was the same with Zucchero and Pavarotti. One minute they were stars; the next minute, they were in the background, replaced by the voices of children or the sound of a guitar player. The focus was on the music, not the individuals. It is the same in a company. The focus should be on the message and the music.
One executive I worked with had been an Army company commander — a leader of 150 people. The military regularly takes units into the field for training, in order to grade the leader and their unit’s combat readiness. So one night this commander is about to start a graded night attack exercise. Just before the exercise starts, he turns to the evaluator and says: “Before you start, I’m telling you right now that I’m dead, one of my sergeants who is responsible for resupplying ammunition to the troops is dead, and one of my lieutenants is dead.” The evaluator says, “Are you out of your mind? Your unit is going to fail the test!” But the former company commander said: “If they can’t do this without me, then I’ve not served them well.” Guess what: His unit had the highest scores of any company evaluated. He had ensured that his team was well trained. They had the confidence to act in spite of unforeseen and compromising circumstances. He said, “I wasn’t out front, I wasn’t even there.”
6. Cultivate commitment and enthusiasm; they’re contagious.
As the music reached into the hearts of the audience, everyone began singing along and clapping their hands with the singers and the orchestra. At the end of the song, the singers and the orchestra and the 1,000 people in the audience were as one, united by purpose.
I remember once talking to some pension fund managers, and I asked one of them: “What are you here to do?” And I love what he told me: “Well, if I’m successful, I’ll be providing jobs for people.” There’s a difference between people who think “I’m investing money for this pension fund, or that university,” and others who say, “We’re making it possible for people to live their lives. Our real clients are the students who need a scholarship, the families whose livelihood is preserved by our fund.” That kind of commitment permeates the culture of the company.
It is my experience that people who commit themselves to something bigger than themselves are just different people. There’s some new research that shows that these people have a more significant impact than those who see what they do as just a job. They are so driven beyond the normal that their actions are contagious. People stand in awe of their determination and drive.
7. Commit yourself to a bigger cause than yourself.
The concert was not just about the music; it was dedicated to raising money for Bosnian refugees. People will follow you if they come to believe that you are about something greater than yourself.
I’ve helped build leadership development programs across 40 countries in the world as a volunteer, and all I can tell you is that you can’t compete with the heart of a volunteer. There are 62 corporate executives, some with their spouses, who volunteer to serve as facilitators and coaches in these leadership programs; they pay their own way to the Middle East, Southeast Asia or Central Eurasia and spend two weeks of their own time with no compensation. Big things happen when people see others giving of themselves with nothing expected in return. One of the participants in a two-week leadership program in the Middle East was involved with a local NGO in Oman that served the deaf. He was so inspired by the example of these volunteers that he wanted his NGO to produce the very first Braille book in Arabic — and he did it. He told me later, “This program taught me that I needed to do something bigger than myself, beyond this program, beyond my family and beyond my country. I said to myself that if these people will come 10,000 miles away from home to help me, why not expand my efforts to serve the entire Middle East?”
The key to understanding the music of leadership is to understand that really good leaders know how to manage emotions as well as direction. In effect, they are in tune with those around them. And when the time comes to sing a new song so that they can take people in a new direction, they do just that.