CFA News

“We Tenors” – Leadership Lessons from the Choir Room

By David Berry – BA ’92, M.Ed. ‘96

I was deeply privileged to be a member of the University choruses from 1988- 1992, three of those under the direction of the late Paul Salamunovich. When Paul passed away in April, 2014 I reflected on the lessons I learned under his direction and how they have helped to shape my point of view on the role of leadership in a complex and changing world.

LOOK UP

Paul Salamunovich prowled the rehearsal room like a bear, and at no time more so than at our first rehearsal in the fall of 1988. Perhaps it was his attempt at a “boot camp” strategy – scare away the faint of heart, the weaker links in the chain. We were assembled – 60 men – in a semi-circle around the piano. I was in the front row and I was taking no chances. In my audition a few months earlier I was made viscerally aware that my accomplishments in the little pond of high school meant very little in the open ocean of Los Angeles, LMU and Maestro Salamunovich. I was on borrowed time and a marked man. Paul peered over his glasses with a discriminating glare and, in response, I held – aimed – my music folder like a gun, keeping both my music and this predator in my sights. My knees were flexed, I was on the balls of my feet and my head was on a swivel. I was as prepared to field a sharp grounder up the middle as I was to follow his direction.

Abruptly, he waved off our singing and came to stand directly in front of me. “What’s your name?” he ordered.
”David Berry,” I stammered.
”Who was your high school music director?” he asked.

“Jim Shepard,” came my reply.

Was I just not ready? Was I about to be shown the door? Where was he going with this?

“He prepared you very well,” he said to my absolute astonishment.

I could not believe it. A reprieve. I allowed myself the slightest exhalation. Maybe this was going to work out after all.

That preparation he noticed showed up in a moment of practical necessity: I simply wanted to survive! And the only way to do so was to be vigilant and alert, hyper-aware and attentive to as much information as I could possible take in.

What I didn’t realize at the time was just how fundamental it was to the successful practice of leadership.

If you really want others to follow you – if your vision for the future is worth their full participation – it’s awfully important to know where you’re going. And that starts with looking up. A common mistake I see leaders make is one of posture and stance. Absent a vision for what they are trying to create, they are constantly looking down, engaging in their team’s work directly rather than scanning the horizon for challenges and opportunities that will surely come. A leadership posture is one of readiness and awareness. It is an ability to see what’s going on in the work of the team while keeping an eye on the vision for what it is we are trying to achieve.

Looking up has an even more important, practical consideration. When we look down we miss a lot of important things. Consider the all-consuming nature of our portable technology. It is now completely common and expected to see a group of people in just about any setting – walking, sitting, eating, driving, at concerts and events – with their heads down and focused on a device. The reason this doesn’t work – especially not for leaders – is that leadership happens in relationship, through behaviors that promote meaningful human connection, right here and right now. The more attention we pay to our devices, the less attention we are paying to the actual human beings in front of us. And that’s no way to lead.

Paul expected a trifold attention in the choir room: on him, on the music and on one another. He cajoled us to care as much about the technical accuracy of the work as for the vision he was creating for what it could and would become. And the only way to give it to him – to give it to ourselves – was through the discipline of holding multiples of awareness. We did so with earnest because there was something bigger than all of us at stake; something so compelling that we would never think to look away.

LISTEN WITH HEART

In choral music and in leadership, looking up is a critical starting point but its what we do from that stance that gives us the power to create something more significant that we might have first imagined. When active and heartfelt listening are added in, new possibilities for interpretation and achievement become possible.

Listening with heart requires much more than hearing what’s going on around you. It requires a committed presence, a posture of invitation that shows another person how you will be the caretaker of their offering. Musically, this becomes about integration, layering and texture. If one section of the choir overwhelmed another the integrity of the entire piece might be lost, robbing both the musicians and the audience the opportunity to appreciate the nuanced complexity of their interaction. In the choir room, listening with heart meant unification with distinction. Every individual voice mattered but only in the context of the whole.

For leaders, listening with heart marks the difference between teams committed to continuous learning and those who are stuck in routines from which they cannot escape, blindly applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

A listening organization is one whose leadership recognizes that learning is the only path through change and that their first priority is to listen, with both curiosity and intent, to those who are closest to the work. We understand this rationally. Few would disagree that the quickest, most effective way to address challenges in an organization is to have robust conversations with those on the front lines who live those challenges every day. And yet what actually happens, time and again, is that leaders listen less when it matters most, holing up in conference rooms or at off-sites under the false perception – the arrogance – that they have to heroically go it alone.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, tells the story of his personal epiphany after twenty years of conducting that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. His realization was that a conductor’s power comes from his ability to make other people powerful.

And that starts with listening to what they have to say.

SUPPORT FAILURE

The choir room was an environment of supportive failure. No matter how accomplished the group was and no matter how much experience it might have with a certain piece of music, there was always room for improvement. Music is so much more than getting the notes right. It’s about interpretation, tone, synchronization, feeling and energy. The notes are the starting point, what you do with them is where the magic happens.

To turn music into something magical, for both the performers and the audience, requires a process of repeated, frustrating failure. Paul caught many of those screw-ups of course but from his position at the front of the room he couldn’t and didn’t notice them all. That responsibility was left to the choir, especially the veteran leaders of each section.

I will never forget the first time I looked on as one of the members of the tenor section put his hand in the air to interrupt Paul’s direction. When invited to speak he said: “We tenors are having some difficulty with that last passage.”

“We tenors!”
What a revelation! We were in it together. No singling out. No demeaning or diminishment. No isolation or guilt trips.

Instead, there was a simple, unified strategy of shared responsibility that maintained morale and deepened camaraderie. It said, “If you screw up, we all screw up.” And you know what? Whoever did it last time was unlikely to do so again. You learned quickly to be prepared and to be tuned in and, if you just didn’t know the part, to shut up until you had it right.

When’s the last time you worked in an environment that created that kind of safety; that kind of shared accountability and expectation of success? When’s the last time you created one? I learned that Paul wasn’t the only leader in the room. Anyone who cared about making beautiful music was invited and expected to be a catalyst for the shared responsibility of achieving the vision, one “We tenors…” at a time.

Look up, to see where you’re going and who’s alongside you. Listen with heart, to hear how to get there.

Support failure, to keep learning alive in the pursuit of something bigger than you can imagine.

David Berry is the founder of RULE13 Learning, a consultancy dedicated to equipping leaders for change. He is married to an alto, Theresa Smith Berry, ’93. They met in the choir room.