Music and Leadership
Recently, I have had a cluster of conversations with people who expressed surprise that a musician would or could be a university president. I usually first respond by asking what the appropriate college major is for the role, which becomes a great platform for the ways a liberal education prepares our students to be adaptable and to become leaders.
Having enrolled in a professional undergraduate music program, I frequently half joke with our students that I spent my college years in a practice room and that I have been catching up on a liberal-arts education ever since then. The truth is the music-school curriculum was in many ways a specialization embedded within a deeply interwoven framework of diverse knowledge and skills—liberal education. We learned physics through acoustics and Pythagorean scales; we learned literature through analyses of lyrics; and we learned history as the shaping influences of our art over time. We also developed a range of transferable skills that have continued to prove themselves valuable in a variety of professional settings.
The following is an updated version of an essay, “From Practice Room to Board Room,” that I wrote for Inside Higher Ed. The original was published on 20 December 2006.
During the first few weeks after I was first appointed Chief Academic Officer at Sweet Briar College (fifteen years ago), many faculty members made appointments with me to offer advice, encouragement, or to inform me of some promise made decades earlier by some by-then-dead bureaucrat whose pledge I should have felt beholden to honor. Among these visitors was the chair of our Business Program, Bill Hostetler. For a few days prior to our meeting, I turned over in my head a dozen possible demands that I would have to deny. When the meeting arrived to my surprise, he entered my office with a stack of management textbooks teeming with labeled post-it-note tabs. This man was armed.
He began what I expected to be his pitch by telling me that I had quite a challenge in front of me, and that institutional dynamics are difficult to reshape. I then realized that he did not desire anything but to help. He had carefully identified and annotated the critical passages on effecting cultural change within organizations. “I’ve marked these because they will be necessary for you to be able to get anything done,” he said, “and these are concepts with which you are probably unfamiliar.” I replied that I really didn’t have any management training. “Are you kidding? You’ve been preparing for this job your whole life.”
It turns out he was right. My discipline is music with a specialization in conducting. The longer I have served in administration, the more I believe my conducting training has provided me with the most valuable preparation for my current career. The following examples are not a claim of mastery on my part, but rather observations of the transferability of leadership skills from one field to another.
Time management: Of all college students, musicians are generally the best time managers. From the very beginning, they are inculcated with the need to practice no matter what other competing responsibilities arise (This is also true of student athletes.). The great music pedagogue, Shinichi Suzuki said, “Practice only on the days you eat.” This is the creed of most successful musicians. Conductors have the added need to run efficient rehearsals. Ensembles have a fixed amount of rehearsal time to prepare any performance, and in the case of professional groups, time really is money. Decisions must be made instantly. The conductor’s practice time is score study and rehearsal preparation: the better the preparation, the greater the likelihood that these split-second decisions will be good ones. The conductor’s performances, in a very real way, are the rehearsals. Concerts are a public presentation of the results of the rehearsal.
Strategic planning: The conductor must plan the season, each program, and the individual rehearsals with a complex set of goals in mind. Concert seasons must satisfy board members, cultivate ticket sales, and accommodate the repertoire of visiting soloists. Concurrently, works chosen should educate and enrich the players and the audience. The conductor must navigate a balance between challenging and comfortable works, and must do this with a goal of using these works to make the ensemble not only sound their best in performance, but also improve through the experience. With limited resources and rehearsal time, it is imperative to know where the difficulties will be and how they can best be overcome prior to each rehearsal.
Triage: One of the most important skills for a conductor is the ability to triage any rehearsal situation. The term triage comes from Napoleon’s medical corps who divided the injured into three categories: those whose injuries can wait for treatment, those who need immediate care, and those who cannot be saved. We continue to use this term in medical circles for the process of determining who should be cared for first, not whom we neglect and let die. It is the more modern version to which I refer musically. In rehearsal, the conductor must prioritize what must be fixed first. In most cases fixing the right thing will lead to the automatic correction of a number of correlated errors. The same is true in management, picking the right thing to fix can cause a host of other problems resolved themselves.
Listening: Every leadership text and workshop indicates that two of the most important tools for effective leadership are good listening skills and a sense of humor. The latter is self explanatory, good humor is a fundamental component of a good life. Listening is more ambiguous. Musicians are taught to listen in some unusual ways. We learn to distinguish aspects of pitch, rhythm, harmony, melody, and structure, but we also learn to listen to inflections. Those qualities within music that many consider communicative can teach us to listen for subtext in our conversations with others. Timbre and nuances of tone often betray what speakers are thinking despite what they say. Like the next step in a rehearsal, this helps us to choose the questions that will bring necessary truths to the surface. Additionally, conductors strengthen their discernment of counterpoint and balance, learning to create a hierarchy of competing voices.
Letting your players play: I believe the most important transferable skill is learning to let your players play. In rehearsal, the effective conductor helps his or her players to know what to listen for and with whom they should communicate musically at any given section of a work. The conductor teaches the players to listen to each other. In performance, the conductor must still shape the large structure of a piece, but if he or she has done the job right, the players “have their heads.” This is more than just not micromanaging; it is creating an environment that allows collective artistry to flourish, which is a much richer product than the dictates of an individual no matter how talented that person may be.
There are interesting similarities between an orchestra and a college faculty (and surely many other working communities). The constituents have all spent their lives training as specialists in a common enterprise. The members of an orchestra believe they know as much as the person leading them, and they are convinced they could do a better job. In many instances they are correct, and most of them would like the opportunity to prove it. Faculty members often feel the same way but they rarely want the job. They do not want to give up their teaching or their scholarship. The conductor has the advantage of still making music and giving concerts, but the conductor is the one musician who doesn’t make a sound.
Comparing the roles of provost and president through the conductor’s metaphor: the provost must coördinate more detailed rehearsals, and the president must listen and respond to a more diverse collection of voices. For the conductor, the reward is helping the players to function as an ensemble and inspiring them to play better than they believe they can. This same reward awaits a leader who is willing to listen carefully to the faculty and staff of a university and let them play.