Turn on your heart light: What leaders can learn from musicians

2 years ago   •   15 min read

By Ashish Mohan & Steven Bell

At first glance, the world of music and the world of business don’t really seem to have much in common. Look more closely, however and you will find similarities. Many business leaders would laugh at the idea of approaching a musician for leadership lessons but Ashish Mohan and Steven Bell, whose lives encompass both disciplines, argue here that it may be time to do just that.

Can (God forbid) leaders learn anything from musicians?  

It was while discussing a Coldplay concert that the idea for this article came about. While both your authors have full-time careers as professional businessmen, they are musicians in their spare time (Steven plays the guitar, while Ashish plays the piano and sings). While shooting the breeze over WhatsApp one day, we started asking each other questions like: Is there any intersection between the fields of music and business? Are there any associations between how musicians and leaders behave?  Can (God forbid) leaders learn anything from musicians?  

There’s no doubt that we are living through very challenging times. The world we live in is now radically altered. In a  relatively short span of time, we have witnessed a pandemic and a worldwide health crisis of epic proportions; a sudden and unprecedented economic crisis with entire industries decimated almost overnight; and (rightful) protests demanding racial justice.

Meanwhile, in the background of this epochal upheaval lie the 21st-century issues still waiting to be resolved: a planet in peril; a decline of democratic and media freedoms in over 130 countries; rising economic inequality around the world;  recurrent migrant crises in multiple parts of the world; a massive mistrust of political leaders; a massive mistrust of corporations; and (last, but not the least) a mistrust of business leaders. 

The trust deficit that businesses and their leaders face today is substantial. The news media is awash with daily stories about corporate scandals, corporate greed, and corporate plunder of the environment. Even the Big Tech CEOs we once hailed as messiahs are now being seen as robber barons in the public imagination. 

In a dramatically changed world that seems to be rapidly crumbling in front of our eyes, how should business leaders react?  Should they carry on as before? Should they keep doing the same things in the same way? Should they just be patient and wait for things to go back to ‘normal’? And was the ‘normal’ we had all that good? Or were many business leaders coming up short,  failing to live up to the highest expectations of customers and society? 

Whenever the questions seem mind-bogglingly complex and the answers far from clear, we businesspeople fall back on something we do quite well–we call a guest speaker. Such a speaker, we hope, will enlighten us and pilot us out of the clouds of our minds (the cost of the best enlightenment being roughly $100,000 nowadays).

And we know just the kind of speaker to call for this sort of thing: a glorious business leader; a wise economist; an intrepid turnaround specialist; a change management guru; or, best of all, a super-athlete who climbs Everest on weekends. Rarely, if ever, do we think of asking a musician to enlighten us. 

In business, we like to take direction from people who have fought the hard fight. We would much rather take lessons from a  former military chief of staff than the lead violinist from the local chamber music ensemble. There’s almost nothing a  musician can teach us. After all, there’s almost nothing in common between the worlds of music and business.  

Perhaps think again. We believe there are a number of associations between the worlds of music and business management.  These associations could have resonance for the art of leadership, as well as hold important lessons for business leaders facing the challenges of the 21st century. We highlight some of these associations below.  

  1. Let creativity permeate every aspect of your business  

For musicians, being creative is a matter of survival. Creativity must be the essence of what musicians do every day. Musicians need creativity to compose music. They need creativity to perform music. Creativity helps a musician express feeling through their instrument. Musicians also need creativity to be able to improvise. 

Improvisation in music is the ability to invent a variation on a melodic line, harmonic progression or a rhythm pattern on the spur of the moment. The most creative musicians are able to improvise fluidly without even having to think about it.

Improvisation in music is the ability to invent a variation on a melodic line, harmonic progression or a rhythm pattern on the spur of the moment. The most creative musicians are able to improvise fluidly without even having to think about it. If you want to hear what musical improvisation sounds like, listen to the Miles Davis album “A Kind of Blue”. But improvisation is not limited to jazz. Musical improvisation is found across many musical genres, including blues, rock, pop and Indian classical music.  

Today’s fast-changing, highly uncertain business environment demands that you be agile. It demands that you be an improviser. It demands that you react quickly and decisively in a world where your existing business model can suddenly be rendered obsolete due to technological change. Companies–and the leaders leading them–have to be resilient, flexible and adaptable. 

When top business leaders fail to think creatively, they can sometimes inadvertently destroy their own businesses. Failing to think creatively can even destroy an entire industry. The American railroad industry became all but extinct by the 1970s  because it failed to view automobile and air travel as competition. The world-famous Kodak company went bankrupt in 2012 after it failed to take advantage of the growing opportunities in digital photography, a technology that it had earlier invented. 

In contrast, companies that chose to be creative have managed to reap rich rewards. Recently, Apple became the first company in history to exceed $2 trillion in market value. Most experts agree that a substantial part of Apple’s phenomenal success is due to its ground-breaking innovation. Musicians know that musical improvisation involves making mistakes and taking risks. In a similar fashion, Steve Jobs and his team at Apple made mistakes, went out on a limb, took huge risks–and triumphed in the end.  

Not all of us can become Steve Jobs, but we can take deliberate steps to unleash the creative potential of everyone working in our organization. How can you do that? Scientific, structured behavioural training workshops can produce significant and measurable advances in your employees’ creative output.

Such psychologist-designed training interventions are already available and ready for you to use. Also, look for creative people right at the time of hiring itself. In the job interview, ask candidates, “Relate a time when you exercised your creativity and provided a novel and useful solution to a business problem.” 

Creative individuals make for creative teams, and creative teams make for a creative company. With creativity, the potential of your organisation is truly limitless. We can almost see Steve Jobs smiling and nodding his head. 

  1. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability  

Musicians are comfortable showing their vulnerabilities to the world. Just go through some song lyrics. You will find plenty of songs about depression, despair, anxiety, frustration, confusion, fear, weakness, heartbreak and loneliness. When was the last time you heard a business leader share such feelings publicly?

When confronted with a tough problem, it is okay for a leader to say “I don’t know the answer to that.” A leader doesn’t have to be perfect. Showing vulnerability, showing that you don’t always have all the answers, is not a sign of weakness. Leaders who display their vulnerabilities can provide proof that they are human, imperfect, sometimes beset by uncertainty and doubts,  but always ready to listen and learn.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has not been afraid to display her strength along with her vulnerability. According to leadership development coach Kate Turner, “…vulnerability is about being brave,  courageous and most importantly leaving our ego at the door.” 

In today’s highly demanding, highly complex business environment where the pressures to perform and deliver results are enormous, being able to show vulnerability may be one of the most important skills for a leader. Why?  

When the pressures of leadership threaten to overwhelm, engulf and push them under, leaders must be able to ask for help.  The help may come from a business coach, a trusted colleague, or a psychological counsellor. Having the courage to say “I  need help” can save a leader from unnecessary stress, anxiety, burnout, depression and nervous breakdowns.

Putting on a false show of strength, not asking for help and letting the problems snowball can have devastating effects, including (as increasingly witnessed) suicide and what the Japanese call karoshi deaths (deaths due to overwork, mainly through heart attack, stroke or a  starvation diet). Such deaths don’t just happen in Japan, they are a growing phenomenon across the world. It turns out what  Rick Astley sang in his 1990 song “Cry For Help” was immensely valuable after all: “Why must we hide emotions? Why must we never break down and cry? All that I need is to cry for help…” 

When you show your vulnerability, it can have some wonderful effects on your organisation and its people. When you show vulnerability, your employees will receive permission to start being themselves. When this happens, your employees will bring more of their real selves to the workplace, commit to their work with greater passion, have greater self-motivation, and will be able to achieve more of their true potential–something that can be of great benefit to any organisation. 

  1. Bring empathy to the workplace  

Musicians compose and play music to help heal the pain in the world as well as share the joy of music with others. Being a  musician involves taking care of your community’s emotional needs and nurturing people when they feel lost. All this taken together is what we call empathy.  

So why might empathy be a useful quality for business leaders? 

While most companies are in business to make money, it is important to remember that they need to balance that with taking care of their stakeholders, including employees, customers and members of the community. When a company takes actions that destroy the well-being of any of its stakeholders, these actions can eventually have a deleterious effect on the company as well. Enron, the Houston-based energy, commodities and services company, was once named “America’s Most Innovative  Company” for six years in a row.

In 2001, it was revealed that Enron sustained its financial condition through the use of systemic accounting fraud. The company was involved in multiple lawsuits and went bankrupt. Thousands of Enron employees lost their jobs. In addition, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm (Enron’s main auditor) was also found guilty of crimes and was dissolved in the aftermath of the scandal. 

Enron’s leaders, had they had even a little empathy for their stakeholders, would never have embarked on the path toward deceit, lies and stealing. Empathy is stronger than ethics because while ethics is debated in our brains, empathy comes from the heart. Business schools teach ethics to their students, but how many of them have a course on empathy or community service? 

The average life of an American corporation (we are talking about listed companies) has steadily declined and is now just 9.5 years. Maybe it’s time corporate leaders looked beyond share prices and short-term returns and gave more importance to corporate longevity and social impact. Maybe it’s time to “turn on your heart light,” as Neil Diamond famously sang in his  1982 hit, “Heartlight”. 

  1. Have the humility to be a lifelong learner  

If you are a musician, you naturally understand that you are going to be learning music all your life. You can’t ever afford to stop learning and become complacent. Making music might look easy. But if you have ever tried learning a musical instrument, you understand the Herculean efforts required to master an instrument. When a musician stops learning she stops growing and her skills become stagnant. It is a sort of musical death. So you keep improving and you keep learning–from your teachers, your peers, your rivals and even your audience. 

The business world is the same. There is rarely room for complacency. Businesspeople need to keep learning in order to grow personally and professionally. Everyone talks about learning organisations, but can an organisation truly learn anything until its leaders have the humility to be lifelong learners? In business as in music, each day is a wonderful opportunity to learn. But  only if you have the humility to tell yourself, “I don’t know enough.”

 

  1. Practice being a good listener  

Musicians are trained to be good listeners. Their powers of listening are highly developed and almost superhuman. This comes from being taught all your life to listen carefully to the music played by your teachers, other musicians and, of course,  your own music. When they perform in public, musicians are listening not just to the music they are playing, but also to sounds from the audience. In a hushed concert hall, musicians hear every muffled cough, every whispered conversation, and every time someone’s cell phone beeps. 

In the business world, we understand the importance of communication. But most of the time when we think of communication, we think of speaking. Listening is seen as less important, perhaps because it seems like a passive, somewhat inconsequential activity.  

Most of us are not good listeners. While someone is speaking with us, we drift into our own little world and start thinking (for instance) how much laundry we have to do that afternoon; or we mentally start planning what we are going to say next; or we interrupt the speaker even before they have finished a full sentence. Overall, most of us are much more eager to speak than to listen.  

Most people don’t have the patience to practice ‘active listening’, which involves focusing completely on the speaker,  understanding and comprehending their message, and responding thoughtfully. We don’t want to delve into the details of active listening here because excellent information and courses on the subject are already available.

But all of us need to understand that active listening carries a host of benefits: it helps us build connections, it helps us build trust, it can help us identify and solve problems, it helps increase our knowledge and understanding of various topics, and it can help us avoid missing critical information. 

In short, we learn much more when we are listening versus when we are speaking. Minneapolis-based Land O’Lakes is a $14  billion agribusiness and food company. The company’s CEO Beth Ford feels that learning to listen is one of the keys to good leadership. She and her managers do listening sessions with employees in order to get to know their life journeys better. She feels top managers need to hear these stories. For her, it’s all part of making sure every employee feels included, feels  connected, and feels listened to. 

Therefore, talk directly with your employees. Have an open-door policy and let your people come in for a chat. Listen to their stories and help them align their stories with the story of your organisation. And as you go about your day, talk for a few minutes with the man cleaning your office windows. Chat a little with the lady who cleans your office restrooms. And in meetings with your teams, listen to everyone’s ideas without judging. Let every employee understand that they are respected and valued. 

Engage in a dialogue with stakeholders in your community. Talk to the students and professors of that college close to your office compound. Maybe there is potential for starting some joint research projects? Maybe there is a new product that can be developed? Maybe there are new markets to be tapped? Maybe there are ways to make your product or service better for the planet?  

And don’t forget to listen to your customers, not just the ones that gave you a million dollars in business last year, but also the ones that stopped giving you business.  

Try focusing on listening for a few days. Instead of being commander-in-chief for your company, try being the listener-in-chief for a week. You may be surprised by how much you learn, how many problems you uncover, how many new ideas you gather,  and how many benefits accrue for your organisation. 

  1. Realise the value of selflessness  

While it’s true that not all musicians are selfless, the overwhelming majority of them display the quality of selflessness in spades.  There are literally thousands of musicians around the world who play music for others without thought of garnering money or fame. We know some musicians who perform for free, and we are sure you do, too. And the feeling of selflessly serving an audience runs deep. We know many musicians who have told us that they have lost all motivation to play music because coronavirus lockdowns have taken away their audience. 

When there is pain and suffering in the world, musicians invariably step up to compose or perform music that takes a stand against oppression, lifts people out of pain and offers them hope. In 1939, Billie Holiday sang the song “Strange Fruit”, a song of protest against the lynching of Black people in America. The lyrics of the song compared lynching victims to fruit growing on trees.

In July 1985, musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organised the benefit concert Live Aid, which was held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia as well as televised worldwide. Live Aid raised $127 million for famine relief in  Africa. In 2001, Paul McCartney organised The Concert for New York City after the 9/11 attacks. The concert honoured New  York’s first responders and raised $35 million for charity. The list of events where musicians have performed for free for a cause is long indeed. 

But what use is selflessness in the world of business? Why should a business leader bother to be selfless?

For one thing, research over the last decade shows that the stocks of companies that are committed to social responsibility and environmentalism outperform the stocks of companies that have low scores on these parameters.  

Another reason to be selfless is that unbridled greed is proving to be the undoing of capitalism. Selfish leaders can bring down not just their companies and industries, but also their nations and societies. The 2008 financial crisis was caused by wholesale greed in the banking system–dubious subprime mortgages, fraudulent underwriting practices, predatory lending, over leveraging and incorrect pricing of risk. This crisis led to the Great Recession which caused widespread pain and unemployment around the world. Experts say that this crisis was not just a financial crisis, it was a systemic crisis of capitalism itself.  

Many economists say that what is needed now is responsible for capitalism. But how can this come about if we continue to educate our business students in the same old ways? Save a few cosmetic changes, the system of business education has largely been unchanged for the last several decades. The system that is producing our future business leaders is emphasising a toxic brand of unfettered ambition, a relentless pursuit of money, a greed for power, and growth at all costs. Little or no attention is given to topics such as self-knowledge, finding your purpose in life, character-building, respect for individual differences,  combatting racism and workplace discrimination, service to the community, environmental consciousness, or the social responsibilities of business.  

The very definition of success (as suggested by business schools) relates to an emphasis on the acquisition of wealth, status,  power and fame. In reality, success has less to do with self-gratification and more to do with committing your life to a purpose.  That purpose could very well lead to becoming CEO of a giant corporation someday, but students should understand that they need to become business leaders who have the wisdom to lead companies in a responsible way.  

Until our system of business education changes, we will keep seeing economic crimes and financial meltdowns. 

Society and business are inextricably interlinked. The health of one affects the health of the other. The actions businesses take can have a huge impact on the world. A little bit of selflessness from business leaders will go a long way toward achieving what  John Lennon imagined: “No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.” 

notes from music

 

The world of work has evolved, from the throes of the industrial revolution to the age of the assembly line and mass production; from the labour movement to the painful restructurings of the 1990s; from affirmative action and gay rights to the  MeToo and anti-racism movements. But is our world of work perfect now? Far from it. There is an urgent need for improvement. There is an urgent need for change and evolution. Maybe, just maybe, musicians could provide some of the answers to what’s missing. 

 

Musicians comfort us when we are down. They rouse us to action when we have lost our motivation. They inspire us to forget our perceived differences, be they age, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, economic status or anything else. They bring people together and inspire us to act for the common good.

So in these complex times, when leaders need to be at the top of their game, should your next mentor be a musician? Perhaps.  Most musicians will look at you funny if you approach them for leadership advice. Most of them don’t see themselves as leaders. But simply paying more attention to how musicians behave can help leaders tremendously. 

Musicians comfort us when we are down. They rouse us to action when we have lost our motivation. They inspire us to forget our perceived differences, be they age, gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, economic status or anything else. They bring people together and inspire us to act for the common good. They help us celebrate our successes and have fun. They help society understand itself and show people what’s missing and where they need to go.

Musicians help us understand ourselves. They show us who we truly are and lead us back to ourselves. They help us move toward a greater understanding of our limitless potential. They help us move toward a greater understanding of the obstacles we put in our own way that keep us from reaching that potential. All this sounds a lot like leadership. It sounds a lot like the kind of leadership we might need right now. 

 

Ashish Mohan is the founder and principal consultant at Interactive Management Development, a firm dedicated to help clients maximise the potential of their businesses. Mohan is a behavioural scientist trained in the United States, and helps companies seeking improvement in the highly vital areas of creativity and innovation, employee stress and wellness, and Europe-India business relations. He is the author of ‘The Biggest Bazaar’, a new book that is an intercultural guide for expats seeking business success in India. The Biggest Bazaar has been published by Apple Books as an e-book in 51 countries, and is now available on your Apple device.

Steven Bell is Senior Vice President for Diagnostic Imaging and Digital Health, Asia Pacific, with Siemens Healthineers and Principal Coach at EV Executive Coaching.He has held a number of leadership roles in Europe, Asia and Australia and holds an MBA, Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance, and Bachelor of Science from Australian universities.

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