leadership

Hearing Like Prince: How A Rock Star Can Teach Leaders To Listen

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” —Prince

I'm pretty sure you never considered Prince a poster child for leadership, but his uncanny ability to hear would have made him a great one. By the time he hit his stride in the summer of 1984 with the release of his album, Purple Rain, Prince's music had acquired the power to point millions of fans to something larger than themselves —a power which derived from Prince's expertise in the rare art of deep listening. Perhaps most crucially, Prince's music has helped people from all walks of life magnify their own sense of what's possible. If the hallmark of great leadership is the capacity to empower others to feel that their own dreams are achievable, Prince clearly possessed the makings of a true leader.

Before we'd ever heard his name, Prince had absorbed a vast array of musical influences, expanded upon them, and repurposed them as the building blocks of his own songs. Prince learned the art of story-songs like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" from Joni Mitchell, one of his earliest idols. The ultra funky guitar stylings that he used in songs like "Kiss" and "Controversy" were gleaned from listening to Tony Maiden, Chaka Khan's amazing guitarist. The dark minimalism of Sly and The Family Stone's arrangements were the impetus for Prince's unorthodox decision to leave the bass guitar off "When Doves Cry", one of his biggest hits. No matter what stage he was at in his career, Prince was listening, gathering up ideas, and storing them away in his seemingly infinite paintbox of musical colors. 

Listening to the mastery and depth of Prince's recordings brings into focus just how much we can all gain from stepping outside our own biases and beliefs. Whether it's politics, the arts, or everyday discourse, there is a pervasive narrow-mindedness that's on the rise these days, and it's up to everyone in a position of influence (and who among us is not in some position of influence) to work against this trend by listening more often, and more intently to what's going on around them. 

As leaders we are too comfortable with pouring out oceans of words, and yet so often we don't hear anything but the sound of our own voices. Take a moment to listen to Prince's music today and you'll see by virtue of his genius that he showed us how much more there is to listen for.

While most of us are habituated to listening at the depth of say, an inch or so, others of us, the more skilled ones, are able to listen at the depth of a foot. Prince was able to listen at a depth of thousands of feet. With every song he left behind, he informs us that the very act of listening is a skill we can constantly improve upon. We can do better. We can listen more and say less. We can listen in ways that are more attentive and less perfunctory.

If we could hear like Prince, maybe we'd be able to hear one another, maybe we'd be able to hear past our own assumptions —and maybe then, we'd be able to hear with the sole intention of understanding.

This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.

About the author:
Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, best-selling author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. Time Magazine writes: “Himmelman writes songs with the same urgency that compelled the Lost Generation to write novels."

In addition to his own, continuing creative work, he is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps organizations to leverage the power of their people’s innate creativity. Clients include Boeing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. His most recent book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October, 2016. Peter also holds an Advanced Management Certificate from The Kellogg School of Business, at Northwestern, and a Certificate Of Leadership Development from the National Security Seminar of The United States Army War College.

Creativity: The Strategic Necessity You May Have Overlooked

Want to rent a house? I’ll bet you ten bucks your first move won’t be to call a real estate broker. You’ll search one of dozens of sites like Zillow or StreetEasy. Nagging sore throat? WebMD. Looking to buy a wheelbarrow or a pair of swim goggles? Amazon. And if you stop your Google search for just a moment you’ll hear something other than your fingers tapping on your computer keyboard. You’ll hear the deep, low drone of encroaching thunder.

That's the sound of disruption, and the only thing that can stop it from upending your business are the ideas you generate through more creative and flexible thinking. Even staid professional service industries like accounting, insurance, or law firms aren’t immune. They too, need a means of injecting creative thinking into their practices if they want to avoid being disrupted. I can already hear the cynics among you asking, “Law firms, creativity? Where's the connection?”

Several months ago I met with the executive leadership of Levenfeld, Pearlstein LLC, a Chicago law firm, to discuss goals for their annual retreat. They told me they wanted their people to think in more innovative and creative ways. Innovation and creativity are broad terms, and whenever I hear them cited as goals I know it’s time to dig deeper and find out what those words actually mean to an organization. The things I want to know are: How would people in your organization act differently if they were more innovative? If your people were more creative, how would their conversations change? And perhaps most importantly — do you as leaders have the stomach to entertain a slew of new (and occasionally awful) ideas?

As their answers emerged I began to understand how serious Levenfeld Pearlstein was about improving its culture.  They were looking for a change in focus from a concentration on standard processes like preparing contracts (an important function, but one that can be delegated fairly easily) to things you’ll sometimes hear derisively described as soft skills — like storytelling, empathy, and vulnerability. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who had just made partner at a different law firm, she looked at me with a sardonic grin and said, “wow, sounds like a hippie commune. At our firm we focus on the bottom line.”

No surprise there. Many business leaders think that things like empathy and storytelling are better suited to an MFA creative writing course than to a professional services industry. When I asked her what the three biggest challenges to her firm’s bottom line were, she had this to say, “The first is employee retention. When someone from our firm quits it costs us a fortune in replacement and retraining costs. The second is client retention and the third is finding new clients.”

No surprise there either. You lose money when employees and clients need to be replaced and you make money when you gain new clients.

My friend had characterized Levenfeld Pearlstein as a hippie commune, but I ask you, which of the three areas that concerned her firm’s bottom line are not powerfully affected by human considerations like communication skills, empathy, or the ability to understand the stories of clients and employees? Levenfeld Pearlstein is hardly a bunch of hippies; they are just as concerned with the bottom line as my friend’s firm is. And yes, while it’s true they are progressive, they are progressive only in the sense that they are fostering capabilities to see what’s beyond the horizon. In doing so, they are being strategic about their bottom line as well. They understand that with online services like Legal Zoom eating away at the market share of many law firms, simply positioning theirs, as the best at creating contracts is no longer a sustainable business model.

Having a record of someone’s spending habits, their online searches, or their whereabouts is not the same as truly understanding them. We’ve come to accept that possessing statistical data is the same as possessing deep knowledge. It’s not. We humans are visceral, emotional, and spiritual beings who exist in a multi-dimensional world. We learn through humor, through music, and through acts of kindness. The Internet is indescribably helpful in making our thoughts and ideas manifest, but we shouldn’t mistake its utility as a way to grasp the totality of our humanness.

Any strategy, which purports to improve the bottom line, must include a proactive and intensive approach to bolstering creativity and innovation, along with the cornerstone of all creativity and innovation: unfettered communication between human beings. We must invest freely in developing “human capital” — an over-used and slightly perverse way of describing the actual men and women who work within our organizations.

Discussing the need for creativity in the workplace, planning for its implementation, and then, putting that plan into practice, is how successful companies lay the groundwork for a culture that is well prepared for rapid change, and for the flexibility in thinking that change demands.

If that’s not strategic, I don’t know what is.

This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.

About the author:
Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, best-selling author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. Time Magazine writes: “Himmelman writes songs with the same urgency that compelled the Lost Generation to write novels."

In addition to his own, continuing creative work, he is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps organizations to leverage the power of their people’s innate creativity. Clients include Boeing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. His most recent book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October, 2016. Peter also holds an Advanced Management Certificate from The Kellogg School of Business, at Northwestern, and a Certificate Of Leadership Development from the National Security Seminar of The United States Army War College.

Photo by Atul Vinayak on Unsplash

Four Pathways To Authentic Leadership

I'm not at all pleased to report this, but even the good ol' word leadership has become something of a buzzword — a term people bandy about without considering its deeper implications. It's the same thing that's happened with words like creativityinnovation and disruption.

In an attempt to service the ever-increasing demand for web content, the pace of creating content has also increased. Sadly, this is all too often accompanied by a decrease in serious analysis. To attract as many readers as possible to their sites marketers tend to overuse certain words that emerge as more eye-catching than others. The trouble is those words get used so often they begin to lose their inherent meaning. This is a problem for both society and individuals when it happens with words that deserve more, rather than less of our attention. To help refocus, here are four pathways to evincing more authentic... (and here comes the buzzword again) —leadership.

Honesty

Honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, being where and when you say you’re going to be and crucially, admitting when you’re wrong. That last one is where we have trouble. We make the mistake of believing that our relationships are predicated on our being smart, being proficient, being clever, and being strong. We are deathly afraid of being anything other than right all the time, and so to protect that insane image of ourselves we are often less than honest. And while we might be attracted to those aforementioned qualities, none of them has anything to do with what makes a real leader. Authentic leadership insists that we don’t distort reality. It requires that we clarify rather than obfuscate the world around us; that we, by our honest appraisals of ourselves and others, help to order the burgeoning chaos in this ever more complex and ever more troubling world. Authentic leadership is the antidote to falsehood. It’s honesty that provides space for our hope, our love and our creativity to flourish.

Empathy

Empathy is easy to talk about and very difficult to put into practice. It is by its very nature a state of mind, which contravenes a basic part of our humanity  — our animal selves and our self-serving need to simply stay alive. This primal and instinctual part of us is not a bad thing, but because of its constant focus on "me" rather than "you," it betrays the higher levels of humanity to which we must aspire. To be an authentic leader is to subsume the survival instinct within the more lofty aspiration of allowing others to grow and thrive.

This is where leaders are often put to the test. To be as concerned with the welfare of others as we are with ourselves requires a rewiring of our brains, a retraining of our minds and habits. It demands that we see the world less as a hostile place of paucity, and more as a nurturing place where love and abundance can flourish. Empathy of this sort is an ideal, and while we may never become totally empathetic, perhaps we can at least become mindful enough to judge whether we are on — or veering off — the pathway towards empathy at any given moment.

I once heard someone say of a man I admire, “Don’t make him out to be more than he is, he’s only human after all.” Taken in the light of empathy, and an awareness of what tremendous human-powers it takes to be truly empathetic, I now feel more, rather than less admiration for this particular “only human” man.

Forgiveness

I had once been very angry with someone. Years had passed and still I was angry. I was convinced that she should have acted differently. Even after her untimely death, I remained so. About five years ago I visited her gravesite and had an epiphany. I began to see the anger I was carrying as a huge stone. I was standing at her grave in the falling light of a late summer afternoon and all of a sudden, almost reflexively, I let my hands go wide apart as if I were pantomiming the dropping of this metaphoric stone.

The whole thing probably took me no more than 10 seconds, but the image of the massive stone I’d been carrying, falling of its own weight, was enough to completely change my perceptions of this woman. Whatever anger I had, had fallen away in that moment, (along with my gaining a lucid sense of how insane it was for me to have needlessly carried that stone for so long). When I think of her today I understand that she did the very best she could. I have only feelings of love for her. Forgiveness is an extension of empathy. If we truly feel for someone else, we will surely understand that we too make mistakes  — that we too, act out in anger, and that we too are overly self-protective. To say and to feel, “I see that quality in myself, ” is the cornerstone of strong leadership.

Self-sacrifice

Our concept of leadership has been inverted. We’ve come to believe that leadership confers special advantages: The leader flies by private jet, she barks out orders and subordinates cower, he issues a decree and things get done —and quick! But the authentic leader holds in her mind a vision of a collective good and strives by her tireless effort to disseminate that good to others. She is motivated not by the benefits that will accrue to her but rather by the benefits that will accrue to others.

To some perhaps, particularly at this moment in history, this sort of thing might sound a little naive, or even ridiculous. But the fact that the pendulum has veered so far from this understandably aspirational vision of leadership shouldn’t matter one iota; the effort required in becoming a true leader still lies in recreating for oneself a true north, a focal point to constantly strive for.

Authentic leaders are rare for one reason: most human beings are hard-wired toward self-service, rather than self-sacrifice. Most humans, as we see on a daily basis, claw their way to short-term self-aggrandizement; authentic leaders, unlike most others, are extremely rare because they are concerned with long-term societal benefits.

When we see people evincing authentic leadership, we are inspired to act as they do, to reach for goals higher than we thought possible and to achieve great things, not for ourselves alone but for the greater good of all humankind.

This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.

About the author:
Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, best-selling author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. Time Magazine writes: “Himmelman writes songs with the same urgency that compelled the Lost Generation to write novels."

In addition to his own, continuing creative work, he is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps organizations to leverage the power of their people’s innate creativity. Clients include Boeing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. His most recent book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October, 2016. Peter also holds an Advanced Management Certificate from The Kellogg School of Business, at Northwestern, and a Certificate Of Leadership Development from the National Security Seminar of The United States Army War College.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Leadership's dark side: a survival guide

"To lead is to live dangerously."

When you create change, you create a hostile environment.  It's one where threats may emerge with no warning.  Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky go beyond the perceived glamour of leadership to examine some of the risks leaders face as they create change. 

                           Read the full "Survival Guide for Leaders" here

 

 

More Data on the Evolution of Team and Culture From MIT's Digital Business Study

More Data on the Evolution of Team and Culture From MIT's Digital Business Study

MIT's Sloan School of Business published data in their 2016 Digital Business Study that reinforces the idea that organizations are evolving into more self-directed, high-performing, data-driven teams.