Leading with Emotion - The Powerful Effects of Music in Leadership, Personal and Professional Development Programs
I am currently living out an unexpected irony. Our school education system has moved in a direction where arts subjects such as music and drama are far less valued than literacy and STEM. Yet in teaching this very population of educators (as well as leaders and managers), it is through using these “nonessential” crafts that I have received the best results in my 20 years of teaching. nb. if you are curious about how, you can see us in action below:.
Some random feedback from our recent deliveries include:
“That is hands down the best PD I have ever been to! Absolutely loved it and took more away from that than I have in a long time. What a refreshing and considerate session to organise. I think this is just what I needed!
There is no topping this. Absolutely brilliant!
Wow!!! What can I say? This session was excellent and absolutely blew everyone at my table away. It was well presented, had high quality content and contained information that every person in the room could relate to. It was one of my most favourite presentations ever.
If there was an absolutely awesome button I would have rated as that. Love, love, loved it!”
I would like to point out here, that I didn’t always receive such favourable reviews for my teaching. I actually started out as a university lecturer, where holding a PhD was the only requirement needed to get you in front of a class. In this context you were considered “the sage on the stage.” The general approach to teaching is you just get up there and talk, students take notes, and that’s pretty much it. Or so I thought….
When I moved to corporate education, it was a shock to the system. You are no longer the “sage on the stage” – you are presented with a room full of leaders who are all experts and don’t necessarily appreciate being “talked at.” My first teaching feedback report was ok considering, but contained one student comment I will not easy forget - “Scott should never be allowed to teach again.” Ouch. I quickly learned that in this context, the best approach is not to lecture, but to view teaching as a conversation, where your role is to pull out the knowledge and expertise already in the room, and to help students apply the knowledge to their own situations. In this context “the guide from the side” often works best. And thankfully my teaching evaluations improved with my new approach ;)
But, I always felt that something was still missing …
My area of expertise and personal passion is positive psychology. My role is to teach leadership and personal development. Well, I should say, my real role is to facilitate change.
The standard approach to leadership development is to have participants take a range of assessments (such as personality tests, and 360 degree feedback surveys), to help reveal “blind spots” and “areas for development.” We can then help them do SMART goal setting, and throw in a bit of coaching to help them address these limitations. It can be a very clinical experience, if you simply follow this approach. And the good teachers and coaches don’t.
What is missing from the above “standard” approach is emotional engagement. To change, you must WANT to change. To want to change, you must not simply “think” the change is beneficial, but you need to FEEL it.
Emotions are the guidance system of the brain – they tell us important information about our current and future states. They tell us if we are getting things right. The basal ganglia, that helps us select actions to take, uses this signal, and attempts to optimise our position – it leads us towards states that are likely to be emotionally positive, and away from states that are negative. We take jobs, follow careers, find partners and choose food options, based upon estimated emotional valence. We don’t marry someone or choose a career if we think we will be miserable as a result. We want to be happy.
Successful personal development and coaching is around tapping into these emotions. So is successful leadership. If we want people to change, or be motivated, we need to help them create an inspirational vision for the future – one that emotionally resonates. We need to lead from the heart.
And this is where music comes into our programs….
Music is one of the few stimuli that activates the whole brain. It activates deep pathways responsible for memory, motor actions, creativity and emotion. Music, intonation and sound convey important emotional messages that words alone can’t express. Before infants can speak or understand language, they respond to sound, preferring positive speech and music over negative or neutral experiences.
Music also impacts brain circuits responsible for social bonding. Studies have shown that twice as much oxytocin (the brain’s “social bonding” chemical) is released when groups sing together than when they simply socially interact. According to Professor Dunbar an Evolutionary Psychologist from Oxford University, music evolved over five hundred thousand years ago, as a means for humans to bond together in large groups.
There is definite power in music.
In our programs, we use music as part of an emotional narrative - a tool for storytelling and helping participants “feel” what is currently wrong and what is possible. It is when participants FEEL the need to change, that these other techniques for personal development have the most impact.
Also, it is the most fun I have ever had as a teacher :)
When my mother was pregnant she suffered a series of complications, and the doctors told her that there was only a 50% chance that I would make it, and if I did, that I would probably be brain damaged and wouldn’t achieve much in life. The best thing she could do was to simply take me home and love me.
True to the doctor’s predictions I was slow to walk, slow to talk and slow to learn. I struggled to maintain a C average in primary and high school, and scraped into university with the lowest grades permissible.
But then something happened. The story changed.
The stories that we tell about ourselves and others no doubt have a huge impact on performance. How we perceive the world and interpret events impacts the way we feel, our actions, and subsequent results. For example, in a famous study conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, it was demonstrated that if teachers were incorrectly led to believe that certain students were “intellectual bloomers”, it would change the dynamic, positively impacting their performance compared to the other students.
For me, the “brain damaged Scott” story no doubt had an impact on my performance. Given this story, what was my mother supposed to think, feel and do, when I returned home with a C average report card? Should she be happy that I was actually passing, or should she show disappointment and find ways to help motivate me to work harder? Obviously the former was the kindest response considering the predictions given by the doctor.
Upon entering university, there was indeed a change to the story that changed my life, that came about from a 5 minute conversation that I had with a friend who had been accepted into medical school. He simply asked me if I had ever studied, to which I honestly replied “no.” He told me that he thought it was really amazing that I could get into university without doing any work, and just imagine what I could achieve if I applied myself.
Given this new story, that my lack of success was not related to a lack of potential, but rather, a lack or effort (or GRIT, as we know might say), I repeated year 12, and graduated with straight A’s. I entered university, studying Cognitive Science, and ended up with a PhD, a University Medal for outstanding academic scholarship, and a GPA that placed me at the top 1% of the student population.
Although it might be tempting to say that it was the change of story that led to this change of performance, I think this is an oversimplification. I think the real power came from following the right flock.
In the article “Lessons from the Geese” written by Dr Robert McNeish in 1972, he states that birds flying in V formation can travel 71% further than birds flying alone, due to the “uplift” created by the preceding birds. The main take-home message from this analogy is that people can achieve more in a group that share a common direction than they would be able to alone.
The truth is that stories are powerful in impacting performance, but relationships are more so. If you want to be successful in accomplishing your goals, look at the flock that you surround yourself with. If you want to be successful, surround yourself by people that have common goals, people who inspire and motivate you, people who will support you, and people who will hold you accountable.
Professor Richard Boyatzis, a world expert in emotional intelligence and behaviour change, mentions that such resonant relationships are the key ingredient for successful long-term change. The people we surround ourselves with give us a sense of identity, guide us as to what is appropriate and “good” behaviour, and provide feedback and support. Our flock impacts our sense of who we are, what we are capable of and what we want to be.
For me, the real change in my performance came from following a new flock. But, I think it was simply luck. At the time, my girlfriend, and her family had a huge impact on me, as they saw my potential, and modelled the very behaviours that it took for succeeding at university. My girlfriend likewise received a PhD and university medal for outstanding achievement. The flock in this case, definitely helped me on my journey, and defined the type of company I would surround myself with on later journeys.
The key message here is that if you want to be successful in achieving your goals, follow the right flock. Who is it that you need in your life that will help you on your journey? It could be the right friends, relationships, team members, psychologists (e.g., if you are struggling in a particular area), mentors or coaches. There is so much support available – there are no excuses ;)
Pick your direction and your companions, and head to the sky!
Good luck with your journey ahead!!!
About. Dr Scott Bolland is a Cognitive Scientist, Positive Psychologist, and Leadership and Personal Development Coach living in Brisbane, Australia.
At the age of 30, with only $106 in his bank account, Sylvester Stallone turned down a $US300,000 offer for the rights to “Rocky.” He wanted the film to be made on his own terms, and for him to play the starring role. The rest is history. Sylvester Stallone’s self-belief payed off big time. Rocky won 3 academy awards, and the franchise has brought in over a billion dollars.
Stories like these garner much media attention. We all love the underdog, and want to believe that if you follow your dreams, and risk everything, that the universe will be kind in return.
But the truth is, the universe isn’t so kind to people who take risks. 90% of start-up companies fail. And for those who invest everything in following their dreams, the consequence of doing so is more often than not, quite devastating.
So what is the real message that should be celebrated? That we shouldn’t take risks, and instead live lives of security and mediocrity? Hell no! The useful message lies somewhere between these extremes.
The real message we should celebrate and embrace is that we need to balance our efforts – we definitely do need to take risks, and be willing to fail, but we need to do so in a safe-to-fail manner.
According to the Cynefin model, by Dave Snowden, there are different types of problems that we all need to face in life and business, each requiring a different approach:
Simple problems are those in which a good solution can be found without much effort. For example, if your car is running low on fuel, take it to the petrol station. Simple.
Complicated problems are ones in which a good solution can also be found, but requires some analysis, and domain expertise. For example, if you are having car problems, a mechanic may run several tests to identify the issue. Similarly, to build a bridge requires engineering knowledge – but generally a good solution can be identified through analysis.
Complex problems in contrast, are ones in which there are too many variables at play, or in which our understanding is limited. For complex problems, we need to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. There is no other choice.
Chaotic problems… well…. that is a discussion for another time.
What most of us don’t realise, but is important to understand, is that many if not most of the decisions we face in business or in our personal lives are complex in nature. Around 2/3 of marriages end in divorce, not many of us know how to be the perfect parent, many of us don’t really know how to be happy (suicide is now the leading cause of death in Australians aged between 15 and 44), and in business, it is hard to predict what innovations are around the corner, or exactly what our customers will think about our ideas until we test them out.
The message from Dave Snowden’s work is that in order to deal with such complexity, we do need to experiment, and embrace failure (and support this process in the workplace)… but importantly, we need to conduct such experiments in a safe-to-fail manner. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as the idiom goes.
For example, not every product that Google releases is a success (e.g., ever heard of "google wave" - aimed at replacing email?). The point is, that Google explores many products in parallel, some which fail, and some which succeed. But they can afford to do this, from the revenues from their successful projects. It is very much safe-to-fail exploration.
Many of us don't succeed in our goals because we do not explore and are inflexible in our thinking. We assume our problems are simple or complicated and that we should know the right answer. We think we are experts, in domains where there are none.
The alternative is Shoshin – a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki wrote “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
If you are struggling with areas of your life or business – take a beginner’s mind approach. Focus on what positive future you wish to head towards, and actively experiment, taking time to reflect upon what you wanted to achieve, what worked and what didn’t, and what you might try next time. But don't forget, experiments need to be safe-to-fail.
If you want help in this process, hire a coach, as this is the essence of coaching conversations – devoting explicit time in your weekly routine for active experimentation and reflection, helping you navigate your way through complexity towards a life well-lived.
Best wishes in your travels ahead!
Dr Scott Bolland