The Art of Leadership: Lessons from a Musician


Bach. Beethoven. Ellington. Fitzgerald. Mozart. Sinatra.

Each one was a masterful artist whose music had the power to transform their audience. While it’s difficult to imagine classical music without Beethoven or swing without Ellington, their prominence was not always certain and came only after repeated failure and enormous misfortune. Bach was once imprisoned by his employer after receiving a job offer elsewhere. Beethoven composed his most famous symphony after going deaf. Despite these challenges, each one eventually became known for transforming their genre.

Effective leaders are not made from such ordeals – they’re tested by them, and the skills required of today’s career services leader look much like the skills of a professional musician. As a classically trained musician and a career services leader, I have always been fascinated that both roles call for resilience, focus, agility, patience, vulnerability, and confidence. Duke Ellington once said, “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.”

Study your audience…then transform them

As career services leaders we are frequently called upon to effect institutional change. Many of us were hired specifically to shift the university culture to one where everyone is responsible for the career readiness of students, not just the career center. Finding new ways to engage faculty in our process is a high priority. Engaging alumni in mentoring relationships with students is essential.

Knowing our audience is critical to understanding how to affect them. Effective career services leaders inquire about stakeholder needs, anticipate pitfalls, and plan for contingencies. Improvisation is encouraged, but only after we know what song we are playing.

Change the tune

Career services professionals new to leadership sometimes favor consensus-based decision making, especially if inheriting a team. Building consensus prior to decision making works well for teams hungry for clarity and swift action, but over time individuals will become more comfortable expressing their opinions about our vision. And not all will be fully on board.

For leaders with a tendency to move to decision making quickly, recognize the value of extended dialogue and multiple ways of processing. When tackling a big group decision within the team, rather than opening the discussion to dialogue immediately, consider asking your team to write down their thoughts, and then share aloud. This is particularly important for teams where extraverted personalities can easily dominate a conversation, despite everyone’s best intentions.

To refine your craft, be vulnerable

Musicians are accustomed to receiving constant feedback, which ultimately helps them improve their technique. Learning to hear themselves through the ears of their audience is invaluable, and yet in career services it can be challenging to solicit honest, constructive feedback, especially from those we work with closely.

One effective approach involves holding a private “master class” with a consultant or trusted colleague who is willing to provide honest and open feedback. When you’re ready, consider inviting this individual to work with your team to solicit their feedback. Not only will the insight be useful, the vulnerability shown will help build trust among the team.

The show must go on

Even the most rehearsed musicians make mistakes. Despite wrong notes or grumbles from the audience, a skilled performer is trained to confidently continue with the performance. Similarly in the career services field, a leader’s day can easily be thrown off by interruptions – last-minute data requests or unexpected personnel issues.

Embrace the role of problem solver – persevere and play with passion. As career services leaders, our performance will seldom be judged by its technical perfection, but rather how we navigated the challenging parts, and the emotion felt by those who heard it.

Branden is a classically trained pianist and organist with over 15 years of performance experience. He joined Loyola Marymount University as Associate Provost in June 2015, where he leads the university's Career and Professional Development initiative. In this role he oversees the office responsible for successfully launching undergraduate and graduate students into their professional careers. Over 95% of LMU graduates are employed, enrolled in graduate school, or pursuing post-graduate service or military within six months of graduation. Twitter. LinkedIn.

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