Besides developing leadership talent, piano and classical music are also among my profound passions. There have been three deeply touching, yet unrelated experiences in my life that eventually led me to connect the dots between music and leadership.

1. Since my childhood I have been extremely fond of Chopin (Frédéric Chopin, 1810-1849), especially a series of his compositions called “Nocturnes”. About 6-7 years ago, I came across two piano recordings of one of his Nocturnes – one played by an American and the other by a Russian pianist.  While it was the same piece played perfectly by these two maestros, I could distinctly feel the difference. While the American version sounded romantic, the Russian performance sounded a bit melancholic. Both these took me through two different journeys as I closed my eyes and admired the musical genius of Chopin. However, this left me extremely intrigued. Fortunately I found the answer; but only after the occurrence of two other events in the next two years, as explained below.

2. In 2008, during my stint with Hewlett-Packard, I was one of the few fortunate business leaders who got an opportunity to attend an intense 15-day leadership development program in Boston, USA. One session in that program that I could never forget was on defining the core traits of a leader. It was conducted by a lady professor from MIT Sloan School of Management. Contrary to common thoughts expressed by the audience, she surprised us by saying that the first job of a leader that set him/her apart from the crowd is to “Make Sense”. What she meant was a leader’s ability to scan the internal and external environment, and then form a clear image of the desired future state, i.e., having a dream or the “Vision”. Then comes the need to have the right mix of people, i.e., “The Team” and the ability to plant that dream in the minds of every team member. The rest was all about “Caring” for the team which would eventually take the needle to “Make Sense” again. She spoke for almost two hours without any PowerPoint slides and I was amazed to see her clarity of thought, conviction and powerful articulation.

3. A year later, I had another unforgettable session – this time with a renowned pianist in India. We were discussing a famous symphony orchestra when I asked him about the exact role of a music conductor. What he told me was overwhelming as it triggered a burst of ideas, past learning and their linkages. He told me that the first job of a conductor is to “Interpret”. He explained that if a composer wrote a piece of music about 200 years ago, what we have now is only the manuscript (i.e., the scores). The same piece can produce more than one emotion, say joy, romance, sorrow, anger and so on. And that’s where the role of the conductor becomes extremely crucial, because he is the person interpreting the music, imagining the feelings it will convey to the audience, picking up the right musicians for different instruments – and most importantly, making sure that everybody in the band is aligned to that one interpretation. “How would it sound if half of them played a piece in a joyful manner and the other half in a sad tone? Won’t it sound like chaos?”, he asked me. Then he went on to clarify that the role of the conductor doesn’t end there. His job also requires extremely sharp skills to spot specific gaps in that group and correct the same during rehearsals. And lastly, in order to collectively produce music that deserves a standing ovation, he needs to take along every person in his band with respect, dignity, shared joy, rewards and recognitions.

The interaction with the pianist not only answered the question as to why two piano recitals sounded different, but it opened up my imagination that perhaps some of the best examples of leadership are available outside of the corporate world where most of the time, chaos is a way of life.

Is it because the leader is tone-deaf?

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