Telling the Story

Two listeners to my leadership presentation for EDLP 717 made comments about the background information I provided. One in particular asked “Why?”, as they didn’t see the connection behind my history studying music and my “modern day” leadership. Another asked why I listed awards. In one case, I did mention why one of those was there, and in the other, I missed the opportunity.

I’ll take the easy one first: recognitions. Yau (2012) explains that data comes in a lot of different forms, from individual pictures, numbers, and words. In thinking about data and how I could provide “data” on the leadership strength of innovation, I said “I am not sure of an easy way to represent innovation with data, but what I came up with was instances of recognition for something others recognized as innovative.” So, the dates and the list of recognitions were my attempt to demonstrate this concept with data points. In the same way, I wanted to illustrate communication through a list of blog posts, articles, etc.

As for the introduction into my history, I felt it was artificial to speak about one aspect of myself without an introduction. But what I failed to do was to point out adequately why I chose to include the portions I did. I grew up playing the piano, then the trombone, and studied the trio of music history, composition, and theory in college. That might be enough for a soundbite, but the more I’ve been thinking about my own style and concept of leadership while I’ve been in the Ed.D. program, the more I see a connection between my leadership and “musical me.”

Severance Hall Cleveland

A performing musician has to practice a lot – that’s the only real way to get technically better at playing the instrument, mastering a piece of music. The same would go for singing, with your voice as the instrument. Gladwell rehashes the notion that 10,000 hours of practice can make you a virtuoso. My failure to reach that number, mainly due to endurance, is probably why I’m not a professional musician today.

Most times when I have played the piano in front of people, I have the piece in my head. I’ve memorized it, and that’s it… I can sit down and play it. It’s been played so many times that it’s internalized. If one expects to be nervous, you can bring the score along, and if you need to, you can look at it, to help yourself out. For me, looking at the score is akin to looking at your computer as you present. The presentation is the musical performance. In each case, practice makes perfect.

We can think of two kinds of practice: practicing presenting (mastering the instrument), and practicing a specific presentation (a specific piece of music). But the analogies can go further to other leadership activities, too. When I am in a training scenario with someone, I rarely have any nerves, because I have confidence about what I am going to share or say. It’s like the musical score has been memorized. There’s no fear “performing” when you know the “score.”

I know some people do get nervous. I know some teachers who are fine in front of kids, but their legs turn to jello in front of adults. My guess is that I could be in the very same boat if it hadn’t been for years of performing in front of others. I can remember sweaty hands on the piano keys during my first recital. But over the years, the edge went away. Confidence grew through practicing in front of others in a high-stakes venue.

Another analogy is with something in music we call virtuosity. It’s not germane only to music, but it plays a big part in professional music (we might describe top athletes, say at tennis, as possessing virtuosity in a serve, or a return). A composer (or arranger) can write a virtuosic passage that requires technical acumen. Bach is famous for writing fugues, which require 2, 3, or 4 or more parts to all fit together. It takes planning and an almost mathematical analysis.In one of my favorite jazz recordings featuring a live performance of the Dave Holland Quintet, saxophonist Chris Potter plays an incredible solo, and then there’s clapping and some cheers from the audience. This is a slightly different type of virtuosity, it’s done through the performance. There’s the technical side of performing a fast, difficult passage, but it can also involve reaching the audience deeply through an emotional expression.

The time and effort that I put into the slides I prepared is like the virtuosic composer, planning and arranging notes (or in this case, shapes, words, or graphics) onto the slides. The virtuosic performance is the talk and the delivery. The two may be sympathetic, but they’re also separate at heart. So why is some music virtuosic?

From the composer’s point of view, it’s about making an impression the audience. Reynold’s point that presentations can have an aesthetic quality resonated with me; and the “virtuosity” I ascribed to wasn’t there simply to inspire based on the photos or graphs, but to give the audience the impression that I had the credentials to be speaking about what I had to say. I want listeners to step away from a presentation, with a good feeling about the experience. Why would a musician care to challenge him or herself with a virtuosic passage, when something more plain and easy might do? If the chances taken come-off well, there’s a greater reward for the audience. You sit back, perhaps breathless, amazed, dazzled, or you simply smile.

While it is perhaps easy to speak of these musical concepts in light of giving a presentation, I see the connections often through a lot of aspects of my job. I appreciate the time to work on projects to add a virtuosic element or two. I prepare workshops and presentations (formal or informal) as performances, at least for my contribution. And my contributions to meetings and discussions need to be sympathetic. There are times you put down the conducting baton, and the work at hand is more like a chamber piece: a jazz trio, a string quartet, or a even a 3-person grunge band. The musical genre is not important to the analogy. Sometimes you’re listening, sometimes you dominate, and sometimes you work in harmony. And my musical background definitely has me thinking in these terms, looking for balance a lot of time, in my interactions with co-workers.

So, I do feel my background as a musician is central to my leadership story. I may not have been able to give it ample service inside of a 10-minute presentation that had to feature our 360° feedback, but I know I could have done more to point the connections out.

Practicing my presentation at home, some of those elements did come out, but the live performance had me cheating a bit with nerves. I looked down at the score (or in this case my slides). And virtuosity of performance suffered. But just like performing in front other others on a stage with melody, rhythm and harmony helps a musician get better in front of others, so does speaking in front of others. I enjoyed the opportunity to practice in front of an assemblage of supportive peers.

So many of my peers have adopted a presentation style that is comfortable for them, and I think of that as finding your style of music. As long as your style of comfort helps convey your message clearly and effectively, it’s great to know when you’re comfortable yourself and the presentation “sings.”


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