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Learning to Improvise and Other Lessons in Leadership from Music


Alex Perrin

Date Published

Sep 26, 2018
4 minute read

When I was five years old, I received my first electronic keyboard. I would pretend to play along to the cheesy, pre-programmed elevator-esque music, letting the machine do the heavy lifting. Soon thereafter, recognizing my increasingly apparent love of music, my parents gave me a piano and signed me up for lessons. Unlike my beloved keyboard, this new instrument didn’t play the music for me; I had to learn how to string together melodies on my own.

Many years later, I’ve grown both as a performer and as a professional and I’ve come to recognize many parallels between musicianship and leadership. Like musicians, every individual in an organization practices and performs skills on their own, but it takes a conductor—someone with perspective on how everything fits together—to create organizational harmony.

Leadership, like mastering a musical instrument, is a skill that takes practice and years of dedicated study. A good leader works on perfecting their skills, but a great leader knows that learning is a life-long journey. No matter where you are in your study, there is always more to learn and experience. That said, these three leadership lessons from music always ring true for me.

Find Your Style
Musicians use a set of core principles, i.e., music theory, that can be applied in many different styles. Most musicians learn the basics first: how to read music, how to follow a rhythm, and, over time, find a specific style of music at which they excel. Leaders must undergo a similar process of discovery. As a leader, it’s important to find the style of LEADING that best resonates within the context of the situation at hand while enabling you to accomplish your organization’s goals. A handy and simple reference is described in the LEADERSHIP SPECTRUM PRIME.

Know Your Room
Even if you play the right notes, the wrong orientation will leave your audience feeling as though something is off. Employees constantly look to their leaders for direction, so there are plenty of opportunities in a day to miss the mark. Depending on the acoustics of the room and the ENVIRONMENT in which a leader operates, a whisper can land like a shout. Perfect sound and perfect communication both require an understanding of context and the discipline to adjust as needed. All leaders experience some awkward squeaks and microphone cracks along the way, but when you nail it, it’s music to everyone’s ears.

Learn to Improvise
Practice makes perfect, but perfection isn’t always achievable. Learning to improvise and the ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is an ongoing challenge, but worth the effort. Improvising takes more skill than performing a song as it was written. No matter how many times you’ve solved a similar problem or completed a task, there will be days when things just don’t go your way. As leaders, we need to learn when to throw out the score and jam to the beat of our own drums. Authenticity can be a very powerful tool when ambiguity about the future is high.

Every day I’m grateful to my parents for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to study music. The lessons I’ve learned as a musician have shaped me as a person and made me a better leader and professional, too.

Do you need help finding your leadership style? Learn more about identifying your strengths and other traits of successful leaders in our leadership development and executive coaching programs or reach out directly.