Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Music of Leadership

I hear music when there's no one there... that's the title of a wistful old song you may have heard. In business conversations, hearing music that nobody else hears is a rare and extraordinarily useful talent. It turns out it's teachable, and in an enjoyable (and surprising) way.

We tend to listen for the content in conversations, even though that is arguably their least important part. According to the book Difficult Conversations (Stone et al, Penguin, 2000), every conversation is really three conversations: content, feelings, and identity. If we fail to attend to the feeling and identity conversations (as we usually do), we rarely get all the details and significance of the content. For a business that can be fatal.

Hearing expressions of feelings and identity is what my late friend Glenn Babb used to call "hearing the music" – content is the lyric, feelings and identity are the music. That kind of music is communicated with inflection, pitch, dynamics, tone, phrasing, pace, and timing, just like real music. So it was gratifying for me as a musician to read today that learning to play a musical instrument can dramatically improve one's ability to listen in interpersonal situations. (see Music 'Tones the Brain,' Improves Learning).

And it makes so much sense to me! On stage, I live by my hearing. If I can't hear well enough to get into the swing of things, the result is going to be unsatisfying to me, my fellow performers, and my audience. The challenge is to listen and play at the same time. I call that collaborative listening, and here's how it works for a musician:
  • While improvising on violin, there are four or five other instruments playing with me at the same time. I have to hear them clearly, yet not let my attention be distracted from what I am playing. I have to influence the group's momentum and direction as I also respect it.
  • When it's my turn to solo, I can't just take off on my own, because then the coherence of the music would be lost. And I can't just blend in, because then no one would be providing the interest, drama, and excitement that make music enjoyable and compelling.
  • When it's my turn to support, I can't stop listening because everything I play (and don't play) influences the soloist's support. But I can't influence too strongly or I deprive the soloist of the space needed to speak freely with his/her personal musical voice. 
A workplace that aspires to be more creative needs collaborative listening, in order to seize all those opportunities it's currently missing. The more ambitious and energetic the workplace, the greater the need. And as a leader in that workplace, you will need more skill at collaborative listening than anyone else.

My recommendation – sign up for violin lessons. Or guitar, piano, drums, voice…