The Sound of Leadership

Woman sitting in a car listening to music looking at her phone with a cup in her hand

It is generally accepted that leadership development requires designated time and energy, two things that people who run organizations have in limited supply.

According to an HBR survey of over 1,000 CEOs across six countries published last year, corporate leaders spend, on average, 56 per cent of their awake time (not just work hours) dealing with other people. Another 18 per cent of a CEO’s day is consumed by travel and addressing personal matters, leaving just 25 per cent of their time to read reports, respond to email, etc. And that’s assuming no downtime.

As a result, even leaders who embrace the idea of life-long learning often find very little time—if any—to walk the leadership development talk.

The bad news is that the challenges faced by leaders today make ongoing leadership development more important than ever before. The good news is that parts of a CEO’s day can do double duty. After all, according to groundbreaking research into what makes leaders great, executives can work toward improving performance while taking a taxi or travelling by plane, not to mention in the shower.

“Having established the importance of leader character for sustained excellence in organizations,” says Ivey Business School Professor Mary Crossan, “the next frontier is researching how to activate and develop character on a daily basis.” And her work in this area shows that it can be done anywhere you can listen to music.

On the surface, this might sound far-fetched. Then again, what makes it plausible isn’t visible on the surface—it resides deep down inside the human soul, where strength of character determines what kind of leaders we can be.

Following the global financial crisis, Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership developed a leadership framework that identified 11 interconnected dimensions of character (see Figure 1) responsible for making or breaking performance over the long term.

Figure 1: 11 Dimensions of Leader Character

Diagram of Dimensions of Leader Character

The key takeaway from this research is the need for leaders to possess an equal capacity to flex each of these character dimensions to support sound judgment—what Aristotle referred to as practical wisdom. As noted in the Ivey Business Journal article “Taking Leadership from Good to Great,” this has come as a shock to many individuals and organizations that have over-weighted the importance of some dimensions of character traditionally considered standalone virtues such as courage and drive.

Nevertheless, after establishing that unbalanced character increases the risk of poor decision making and reckless behaviour, Ivey is now exploring methodologies for developing character. Over the past year, Crossan—along with her daughter Corey, a PhD student at Western University, and Cassandra Ellis, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Ivey—has been exploring how music can be used to activate dimensions of character that may be latent.

“Once you gain an understanding of the role character plays in leadership performance, not to mention self-awareness of your character weaknesses, even the busiest of leaders can proactively work on improving judgment every day.”

Ivey MBA students recently took part in an exercise designed to strengthen their leadership abilities via listening to various types of music, reflecting on how the music moves them, and sharing the experience with others (other methodologies for developing character such as improvisation have also been deployed). In particular, Ivey has been exploring how music can exercise the character dimension humility and its associated behaviours in future leaders. Ivey has also run these character development workshops with professional athletes, government officials, corporate executives, and academics.

The point here isn’t to argue that executives can forget about designating serious time and resources to leadership development programs. Considering today’s environment of increasing complexity and change, the need to see leadership development as a life-long journey shared with coaches and peers has never been greater (which is why Ivey recently launched the Ivey Academy to help organizations take an integrated approach to executive learning and development).

There is also the added challenge of preparing the next generation of leaders to address the rapid pace of retirements threatening the stability of management teams as the Age of Disruption heats up.

Simply put, as noted in the IBJ Insight “Building Healthy Leadership Pipelines,” organizations need to look at leader development in the same way that an energy firm thinks about building pipelines that carry oil to market. In other words, as with any long-term infrastructure project, building a healthy leadership pipeline requires time, attention, and a significant commitment of financial resources.

That said, Crossan’s research reveals that once you gain an understanding of the role character plays in leadership performance, not to mention self-awareness of your character weaknesses, even the busiest of leaders can proactively work on improving judgment every day.

While the application of music to executive development has its roots in classical philosophy, it is important to note that Crossan emphasizes a more egalitarian approach to character development than Plato promoted in his works. As pointed out in the academic paper “Plato and Aristotle on the Ends of Music,” Plato saw music as an educational tool because of its ability to touch the soul, but he also saw it as a tool that needed to be deployed carefully because he believed it could mold the soul along good lines or deform it by pushing it toward vice.

As stated in Plato’s Laws: “The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives—but not the pleasure given to any and every auditor. We must take it that the finest music is that which delights the best man, the properly educated, that above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.” If you accept this line of reasoning, listening to a song playlist enjoyed by a proven leader could be seen as a form of musical mentoring.

But while Crossan’s research explores the positive and negative impacts that music can have on character development, she notes that it is misguided to think that one person’s positive playlist will work for another individual. “The research would suggest otherwise because of the personal nature of how music affects us,” she says.

The trick to deploying music in leadership development is reflection and self-awareness. You must first effectively explore the current state of your strength of character to assess imbalances amongst your various dimensions of character. This can be done using a Leadership Character Insight Assessment tool developed by Ivey researchers in partnership with SIGMA Assessment Systems. You then design a song library to promote character dimension balance based upon what moves you emotionally in the areas that require development. After that, you simply hit play.

According to Ivey research, temperance tends to be one of the weakest character dimensions in leaders. Without strength in temperance, Corey Crossan notes, it can be difficult to utilize other dimensions of character, especially under stress. To address this issue, she listens to Jeff Buckley’s cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—which instilled a deep sense of serenity and surrender when she first heard it while being physically depleted at the end of a hot yoga class five years ago.

“Although my initial connection to the song was years ago,” Crossan says, “being able to access this piece of music mentally has helped me activate several dimensions of character, temperance in particular, that have been critically important in sustaining strength of character in stressful contexts.”

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