Leadership Lessons from 2 Musical Maestros
What can two musicians teach us about leadership … even from the grave?
Within a week of each other, two great musicians died. As musicians, they couldn’t have been more different: one, a lyricist with a banjo who wrote songs that swayed his generation with lyrics and melodies so simple and compelling that successive generations embraced them … and the other, a classical conductor, with such an uncanny capacity to uncover the soul of the most complex pieces by the most complex composers that he breathed new life into these forgotten artists.
So what can they tell us about leadership? Two things: the power of telling a compelling message and the power of listening in building a team.
For most singers, a stage is the pretext for a performance. For Pete Seeger, the lyricist with the banjo, it was an invitation: he invited his audiences to sing with him, and they did, because they liked not only the melody, but also the message. His performances were not solos, and his lyrics tapped into the wistful angst and rebellion of his generation; as he wondered where all the flowers had gone, so did his audiences.
As Tom Paxton (a contemporary folk singer) put it, Pete Seeger made “the song the star and the singer merely the presenter.” Many didn’t like the message of his songs—he was too left-wing for the taste of many—but he taught us the power of a clear message, compellingly delivered with emotion and simplicity.
For most people, a snow scene is silent. For Claudio Abbado, the conductor, snow had a sound, but you had to listen for it. In his beloved Italian Alps—where he spent childhood vacations in the shadows of the Matterhorn—his grandfather taught him to listen. And that word, as a conductor, became the binding baton that he waved across his orchestras.
He taught them to listen to each other—the strings listening to the brass, the flute listening to the oboe, and the supporting lines listening to the melodic lines. His orchestras, as no others, intuitively and deeply played as one and mastered with ease the complexities of Mahler or Bruckner, most often shunned by even the best conductors in favor of the far more accessible Bach or Mozart. His legacy was a musical legacy, but it was much more: his legacy is the power of listening, a power that binds people together in a common cause that trumps the challenges of the score before them.
Both left a musical legacy. But far more significant—at least for us as leaders in the marketplace—is the leadership legacy they left us. We engage people by inviting them to embrace a simple message, creatively delivered. And we build a team by listening, and by teaching our team to listen to each other—the binding baton that brings harmony to the talents and aspirations of its members.
So hone your message. And hone your capacity to listen. If we embrace the legacy Seeger and Abbado gave us, our own will be at least as great as theirs.
Leadership Development: Reaching New Heights
Great leadership is attainable. It isn’t reserved for a select few, sprinkled with some magic dust. It is within the grasp of each one of us. The resources are there. It just requires effort and commitment.
Let me illustrate with an unlikely but useful example: elevators (lifts, for our British readers).
Until recently, building a mile-high building has been technologically impossible. Now it’s possible. Why? The limiting factor was the elevator technology: no building could be built higher than its elevators could transport the people who lived or worked in it. But today, the technology to take elevators to new heights is now available.
The problem was not the weight of the box that carries the people. It was the weight of the steel cables that raise and lower the box itself—these cables account for as much as an impressive 75 percent of the combined weight of all the elevator components. The greater the number of floors, the stronger and longer the cables you need … and the greater their weight.
It’s not surprising, then, to witness the excitement around the ground-breaking (or ceiling-breaking) technology that replaces steel with the much lighter carbon-fiber, thereby reducing the weight of the cables for a 1,300-foot elevator to six percent of their steel equivalent. Recently unveiled by Kone (a Finnish manufacturer http://download.kone.com/ultrarope/index.htm), this technology has architects and developers salivating at the prospect of building mile-high buildings. Skyscrapers can now scrape the sky much more aggressively.
So what could inhibit their construction? It’s no longer the technology; it’s now the cost. It costs far more to use carbon fibers. There are, it is true, some long-term cost benefits—carbon fibers are more durable, require less maintenance, and thus create less disruptive downtime. But up front, the costs are higher.
And so it is with great leadership. Just as the technology is now available to build a mile-high skyscraper, the resources are available for greatness in leadership—a leadership that does indeed reach new heights. But the upfront cost is higher. It requires investing time and energy. It requires a willingness to reflect on your leadership and try new approaches. It requires getting out of your comfort zone. It requires an openness to reconsider that what worked for you in the past may not help you reach new heights now in your leadership.
The cost of great leadership development is deliberately, intentionally pursuing it, taking the time to become a student of great leadership. But that cost is worth it, and as you engage in the pursuit of great leadership, you will see how stimulating and rewarding it is. By becoming a student of great leadership, you will be installing the carbon fiber to take your leadership to new heights.
Essential Leadership Trait Character
Character is an essential leadership trait. What is the cost to leadership when character is absent?
The Ides of March, a 2011 George Clooney movie, didn’t get much press, but it answers the question powerfully (Visit IMDB.com for more info.). It’s a movie about choices—moral choices. At crucial points, each of the six key characters is confronted with a choice, and in each case, they make wrong choices … at least from a moral perspective.
In fact there isn’t a single character who has, well, character … no one has a moral framework that guides their choices. Character in leadership is under siege.
They all paid a price—in one case, with the person’s life. And for all, they lost their soul. None so starkly as Stephen Meyers, the junior campaign manager. He very rapidly and very decisively crosses the line that puts him in the same cynical terrain as the two senior campaign managers—and as his candidate as well.
Stephen Meyers’s only satisfaction is that he played the game better than the two senior campaign managers, who had no compunction about destroying him and his career.
The movie ends abruptly—and at a point where one of two things would happen (we don’t know which). Will he crack under the weight of his lost innocence and the price he paid to get what he wanted? Or will he consciously kill his conscience, and so become—so early in his career—morally dead, completely divorced from the idealism that inspired him when we first meet him in the movie. Will his leadership lack character?
Certainly not the triumph of good over evil. More like the triumph of smart evil over complacent evil … but a sobering reminder nonetheless of how ruthless and relentless is the siege on character in leadership … and how easily its walls crumble. There is a cost to doing what is right as a leader, and there is not one among us who hasn’t at some point decided not to pay that price.
But in the end, the cost of ignoring character may be higher still. The long-term benefits of leading with character outweigh its short term costs … something great leaders remember when the temptation is strong.
Great Leadership in Tough Times?
There’s no getting around it: these are tough times to lead in. But tough times are great times for leaders who embrace the challenges. Great leaders shine for two reasons: (1) they confront the toughness in all its reality, and (2) they don’t let that reality derail them. They use a framework in their pursuit of great leadership (see an earlier blog on why you need a framework for leadership), and in the toughness of our times, they see opportunities for growth. Here are five challenges—unique to our times—they confront and embrace:
The expectations for leadership have never been as high.
The scope has never been as broad.
The scrutiny has never been as intense.
The structures of organizations have never been as complex.
The rate of technological change has never been as rapid.
As the poet Edward Young said long ago, “Affliction is a good man’s shining time,” and great leaders shine at times such as these.
Don’t let the toughness of our times deprive you of the greatness within your grasp. Learn to lead—your success depends on it.
Eight Reasons Leaders Need a Framework
I have sometimes been told that in an age of sound bites and short attention spans, it’s hard to get leaders to think. That’s not been my experience, but here is the key: when leaders are given a framework to think about leadership, they think well and deeply—and very practically.
Henri Bergson put it well and succinctly: “Think like a man of action, and act like a man of thought.” … because how we act as a leader will depend on how we think as a leader. Great leadership is a combination of thought and action.
But to think well requires a framework—something that pulls together the multitude of confusing and sometimes contradictory elements of leadership. Now that may sound too simple …does a framework for great leadership really make that much of a difference? Absolutely … a huge one. Here’s what it will do for you:
In short, you will be able to understand, exercise, and teach great leadership.
Leaders stand or fall not so much by their talent—or lack of it—but by their understanding or misunderstanding of what great leadership is. Talent is over-rated … the disciplined application of a sound framework is highly under-rated.
John Wooden: Coach and Philosopher
John Wooden is considered one of the most outstanding basketball coaches in the history of the game. His success, however, came not from the techniques he practiced as a coach, but from the philosophy of leadership that he developed over time. It took him fourteen years to shape and define it, but once he was satisfied with it – he eventually identified seventeen qualities of success and organized them in a pyramid – he applied it systematically, with the kind of results that justly earned him the accolades reserved for very few.
His philosophy of leadership and his definition of success (“the peace of mind obtained only through the self-satisfaction of knowing that you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable”) stand in stark contrast to the usual definition of success in sports (“winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing”).
This philosophy of leadership explains why a loss with 100 percent effort didn’t bother him and a win with a 65 percent effort did. It was this conscious definition and execution of a philosophy of success and leadership that allowed him to transcend his peers, and we can take our cue from him: leaders that transcend their peers are those who define and refine their leadership philosophy and then apply it systematically and consistently. They don’t succumb to the bumper-sticker mentality of the latest leadership slogan.
Great leadership is about principle, not technique. Technique is useful, but without principle, technique becomes manipulation. Great leaders operate from a clear set of principles and convictions, and they work hard at uncovering them to shape a leadership philosophy that gives coherence to their leadership style. For John Wooden, this was no mere academic exercise: it was at the very heart of his effectiveness and greatness as a coach and as a leader. In the same way, we as leaders need a framework to think well about leadership. We discover that greatness cannot be achieved without character and cannot be sustained without competence.
By starting with his philosophy of leadership, John Wooden would have garnered the praise of Plato, who long ago argued that “the philosophers must become kings in our cities, or those who are now kings and potentates must learn to seek wisdom like true philosophers—and so political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” Without leaders becoming thinkers, he warned, “there can be no rest from the troubles for the cities, and I think for the whole human race.” … at the very least, for the marketplace in the twenty-first century.
Who Really OWNS Leadership Development in Your Organization?
Great leadership is in large measure knowing what to delegate and what not to delegate. There is much you should delegate. There a few things you should not delegate.
Where does leadership development fall? In a healthy organization, who is responsible for developing leaders?
It’s not HR. It’s not the training department, if you have one.
It’s your leaders—at every level, starting from the top. They own it.
Or should. Unfortunately, almost universally in the marketplace, they have delegated it … to HR and training professionals. As a leader, that’s one thing you can’t delegate.
Where does that leave HR and training? Does it make them irrelevant? Absolutely not. Their role is to champion leadership development—not to own it, but to champion it.
The reverse is typically the reality: HR and training own it and the leaders champion it (mostly half-heartedly, if at all). But if HR and training own it, the leaders in the organization are off the hook. They may support HR and training, but they do so on their time—as it suits them. They tacitly encourage that ownership.
If, on the other hand, leaders (at every level) own leadership development, the roles are reversed (appropriately): HR and training are there to support them—not the other way round. They champion and promote leadership development, and as its champions and promoters, their goal is to make it easier for leaders to engage in leadership development. HR and training provide them with resources, they advise them, and they hold them accountable. They act as the conscience of organization’s leaders.
So if you are an HR or training professional, don’t take away that ownership and responsibility from the leaders themselves. Push the responsibility back on them. Help them. Support them. Hold their feet to the fire.
And if you are a leader—at any level—don’t delegate this critical function. If you do, you’re abdicating your responsibility. Own it. Embrace it. Don’t shirk it.
If this intimidates you, take two steps to start overcoming your timidity: ask those you lead how they’d like to grow (they will be grateful you asked), and at the same time, commit to becoming a student of great leadership. In doing so, you will learn how to develop leaders. Your success depends on it. And of course, so does your organization’s.
Your People Are Not Your Greatest Asset
How do you get a 33-fold growth rate in less than 20 years? By focusing on your greatest asset.
So what is your greatest asset? “Our people,” many organizations claim. Even if they really mean it (many don’t), it still isn’t true.
It’s not your people. It’s your leaders. If you take care of the leaders in your organization, you will take care of every other asset—including your people … a very precious asset indeed.
In the space of some nineteen years, BB&T went from $4.5 billion in assets to $152 billion in assets … a 33-fold increase from 1989 to 2008. It happened under the watch of John Allison, who became CEO in 1989, and it happened largely through acquisition. Those acquisitions, however, were carefully vetted not only for their economic impact but also for their cultural fit: if the cultural fit was dubious, however favorable the economics, the acquisition was abandoned.
Most important of all, however, was John Allison’s conviction that successful assimilation was a leadership function. That’s why he paid particular attention to training leaders to lead the assimilation of these acquisitions.
BB&T developed a very thorough and sophisticated leadership development approach, and it was a key factor both in successful assimilation (BB&T developed the reputation as the best acquirers in the business) and in the growth of the bank itself.
In a 2011 interview, John Allison explained BB&T’s growth this way: “BB&T chooses to invest very heavily in employee education. We operate our own university …[we have] invested very heavily over a long period of time in quality leaders … If we hadn’t had really good people that we spent a long time developing, we couldn’t have done it.”
Tellingly, when he felt the bank didn’t have the leadership resources to assimilate new acquisitions, he put a hold on any acquisitions (as happened in 2004) … such was the importance attached to the critical role of leadership.
Your people, then, are not your greatest asset. Your leaders are—at every level. Does your investment in that asset reflect the true value of that asset?
That’s how you get a 33-fold increase in less than 20 years.
Seven Axioms to Build a Framework for Great Leadership
Life is built on axioms—statements that we believe to be self-evidently true, “established principles,” as the Oxford Dictionary puts it. Just as life is built on axioms, so is leadership. Here are mine for great leadership:
These, then, are my axioms on great leadership. What do you think? Which ones resonate with you? I’m sure I’ll add to them or change them. But even as they stand, I believe they are transformational … if embraced.
Intuition & Experience - Misleading Tools for Great Leaders
When you make a decision, what do you rely on to make it? When you evaluate someone else’s decision, what do you rely on to evaluate it?
Those questions may seem far removed from great leadership, but they aren’t … they actually couldn’t be more relevant.
You and I typically rely on two things to make or evaluate a decision: intuition and experience.
Intuition calls on that gut feeling inside, drawing on that strange brew of rational analysis, deep emotions, unconscious assumptions, and personal aspirations—a brew that when concocted in a certain way tells us (rightly or wrongly, often wrongly) that this is the right decision.
Experience is our recollection of what worked or didn’t work in the past. If it worked in the past, we are more likely to let experience shape the decision. If it didn’t, we are less likely.
What does that have to do with great leadership? Everything: intuition and experience shape the way most leaders lead.
Unfortunately, both, at some point, fail us. The world has become far too complex, and the challenges of leadership far too daunting, to rely on either one. Much of great leadership is in fact counter-intuitive, and our intuition can easily lead us astray. Trusting our gut isn’t quite as foolproof as we may have been told. And experience is just as inadequate: we find ourselves too often in contexts where our experience has nothing to say.
So what’s the answer? The starting place is a framework that helps you apply the right kind of leadership to the context you are in. My job is to give you that framework, and to encourage you to become a student of that framework—which will help you get beyond the limitations that intuition and experience impose on your leadership.
Study great leadership—and use a framework to help you. That way, intuition and experience will no longer inhibit your growth and success as a leader.
Why I Blog on Leadership Development
Welcome to my blog! You deserve to know why I add my voice to this cacophonous forum.
If you followed my Leadership QuickBrief™ (also known as the LQB™), you know that my focus is leadership—helping leaders understand, exercise, and teach great leadership.
In an age of quick sound bites, why start a blog? For three reasons:
So welcome to this blog!
I look forward to what lies ahead—and the good that we can do together!