Apart from work, piano and classical music are among my biggest passions. Here is my own story of three deeply touching experiences that eventually led me to learn some basic, yet profound lessons on leadership.

Part I

Since my childhood I have been extremely fond of Chopin (Frédéric Chopin, 1810-1849) – pronounced Shawpaen – often regarded as the greatest piano composer ever to live. Long back, I happened to listen to two brilliant renditions of one of his Nocturnes. While it was the same piece played perfectly by two different maestros, one sounded romantic and the other a bit melancholic (sad). Both these performances took me through two different journeys as I closed my eyes and admired the musical genius of Chopin.

This left me intrigued—for quite some time—as to how two solo performances of the same piece of music could carry different emotions.

Part II

A year later, I had the privilege to chat with a famous pianist in India. During that conversation, I just happened to ask him about the actual role of the Conductor of a classical music orchestra. I didn’t know that I was going to get the answer to a question long-buried in my mind.

He said, “The first job of a Conductor is to ‘interpret’ and ‘make sense’ of the music that was written centuries ago, because what he now has is only the manuscript (scores). The same piece can produce different emotions and therefore, the conductor plays a critical role of interpreting it, while also visualizing the experience his audience would have. Then he picks the right musicians, and makes sure that they are aligned to his interpretation, as well as the vision. Last but not the least, all good Conductors also have great sense of sound and very sharp ears.”

He smiled and asked me how an orchestra would sound if every musician had his/her own interpretation of the same piece of music—wouldn’t it be noisy and chaotic?

I thanked him for the insight, especially for helping me understand why Chopin had sounded differently at the keystrokes of those two pianists. But I had some more learning coming my way.

Part III

Two years later, while working with Hewlett-Packard, I was very fortunate to be selected for an intense Business Leadership Program in Boston, USA. There I attended a session on Leadership, conducted by a professor from MIT Sloan School of Management. She started off by asking us to define the role of a leader. Everybody had something to suggest; but she surprised us by saying that the first job of a leader was to ‘make sense’. She explained how critical it was to interpret the internal and external environment, and form a clear image of what the customers would get. She explained further that only after ‘making sense’, the leader would do things that we (the audience) had suggested, e.g., finding right people, decision making, empowerment, motivation, delegation, communication, etc.

As she continued talking, my conversation with the pianist (Part II) had started playing simultaneously in my mind.

I couldn’t resist raising my hand to share my learning from the world of music. She thanked me and said, “There you go! We talk about leadership in companies. But the truth is that some of the best examples of leadership are available outside of the corporate world.”

My Takeaway

The pianist had spoken about chaos if the musicians were not aligned to the Conductor’s interpretation and vision. In real life, chaos at workplace is something experienced by most of us. Isn’t it because some corporate Conductors (Leaders) don’t have sharp ears, or are tone-deaf in the first place?