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.