Leadership Beyond The Stage

Originally published as Leadership Beyond The Stage on CutCommon.

Leadership is key for career success.

The value of training in the creative disciplines is misunderstood and undervalued by ourselves and society. Far beyond the stage, a musical education trains our mind. It allows us to focus on the present and the future simultaneously, to delay gratification, to work collaboratively and to operate at peak performance under pressure.

These are all hallmarks of great leadership but are rarely presented as a valuable and employable set of skills from a music education.

We know that graduates work across economic sectors through choice and necessity. Developing the leadership ability of students makes them a valuable talent pool, and supports career advancement in any industry.

What is Leadership?

Leadership means setting goals and guiding a team in pursuit of a common objective.

Students start to hone their skills and understand their leadership style in the rehearsal room. When they take charge in a chamber music rehearsal to adjust tuning and negotiate balance, they have to command the group and collaborate from within at the same time.

These skills are directly transferable from the practice room to the boardroom. Making this connection explicit for students shows leadership will support their artistic development and their career development.

Integrity means supporting the team rather than focusing on our self-interest. As performers, we are always on display and answerable to our section, the ensemble, and the public. Consistency in our values and actions is integral to building trust with a team and an audience.

Grit is our pursuit and passion for long-term goals, like the daily work on a challenging a concerto for months on end. Grit means turning up and working methodically to get the job done regardless of the circumstances. We can delay gratification while we prepare for an outcome that is out of reach but not out of mind. Achieving difficult goals requires not only talent, but the sustained and focused application of this talent over time.

Enable others. Great leaders know how to enable the full potential in others, how to throw down the ladder so others can feel confident in taking control and initiative. Chamber music is a group effort that requires all of its members both to lead and to follow at different times, which makes each player feel capable and valuable.

Social intelligence is the ability to navigate and negotiate relationships and environments. It requires the ability to understand and react appropriately to the cues of others. Our ability to read non-verbal cues and body language in the rehearsal room and on the concert platform gives us the skill to know our role, be empathetic to our colleagues, to listen and co-operate.

Collaboration. Through our work in the rehearsal space, we learn how to recognise, acknowledge and celebrate the talent of others. Our performance is only as good as its weakest participant.  By listening and balancing the internal lines of the music, we learn that we can have our moment in the spotlight and work within a unified team for a common goal.

Flexibility. Striving for mastery of our craft means that uncertainty and ambiguity are the norm. You rehearsed the passage at a metronome mark of 120 but during the rehearsal, the conductor decides it will be played at 132. There’s no room for discussion here; you simply have to follow the request. Being flexible gives us the ability to tolerate and navigate change.

How Can We Develop Leadership?

What strategies and program ideas can we adopt to develop the inclination to lead and the skills to do so? 

Early intervention. The University of Melbourne Centre for Workplace Leadership undertook a study this year which showed that small interventions early in the student journey can develop leadership attributes and increase the levels of motivation to lead. Starting the journey early allows students time to discover and build on their strengths.

Volunteer. Further, the study identified the tremendous potential in volunteering. Researchers found that students who joined student groups or associations, volunteered, or had served internships, demonstrated higher levels of motivation to lead.

Flip it. For those teaching in the classroom, why not flip it to support self-created projects as the primary source of learning? Require students to articulate a vision, create a work plan, and exercise authority to build their leadership confidence in a structured and supported environment.

Be tech savvy. We’re all digital users, but becoming digital leaders can support sustainable self-employment and career success in small enterprise. Leadership and entrepreneurship must be supported with small business skills which include digital savvy.

Great examples. Look for those who you can follow and find musicians who are leading projects regardless of the discipline. Our behaviour can change when we observe others and see how their actions are rewarded because, in the future, we are more likely to take that same action. Success as a leader is a by-product of the leaders and mentors we associate with throughout our careers.

New income and employment models require entrepreneurship, business savvy, and leadership to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Students must develop the confidence and agency to design and deliver a diverse range of projects to lead income and employment opportunities for themselves and others.

It is essential that young musicians become remarkable leaders – not just great performers – so they are equipped to thrive on and beyond the stage.