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3 key elements of leadership communication

3 min read


My daughter recently started ukulele lessons. At the first lesson, her instructor explained that music is composed of three things: “melody,” which is made up of notes along the scale, “harmony,” which is the chords, and “rhythm,” the beat of the music. In listening to this explanation, it was easy to draw parallels to how leaders communicate messages to their teams.

Think about the next important message you must communicate. As a leader, are you making full use of all three musical elements? Here’s how to ensure your communication hits the right notes.

Make it memorable. In music, a melody is defined as “a pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music.” The melodies to our favorite songs are easy to remember and something that we enjoy hearing repeatedly. A catchy tune on a TV or radio commercial lingers long after we first hear it. In much the same way, your message’s main point must be memorable and easy to repeat. For example, a vice president of claims for an insurance company implemented a “one-and-done” customer service philosophy to emphasize the need for claims representatives to close claims after the first customer contact.

Add the supporting elements of your message. Musical harmony refers to the supportive aspect of the notes, defined by Merriam-Webster as the “pleasing or congruent arrangement of parts.” Harmony in music is about bolstering the melody’s key points in a way that enhances the song. When you are crafting your leadership message, think about the sub-points you will make that reinforce your main message. Also consider the ways in which you can enlist your team’s support of the message.

Establish a beat. What is your message’s rhythm? Think of it as a drumbeat. Some messages require people to act quickly or with a sense of purpose; others require time for reflection. Does your message have the upbeat tempo of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”? Or, is the cadence you’re setting more contemplative, like the languid, adagio tempo of a classical song? Much like orchestra members take their pacing cues from the conductor, your team will pick up on the beat of your message and act accordingly.

Ask yourself these questions to help determine the musicality of your message:

  • If your message could be put to music, what musical genre would it be?
  • What emotion do you want people to feel after hearing your message?
  • In what ways can people “harmonize” with your message — by providing support, asking questions, and even pushing back on the theme to gain clarity?
  • How quickly do you want team members to take action?
  • How will you conclude your message — with a crescendo or a fade into silence?

Even if you have no interest in playing a musical instrument, your leadership practices can still benefit from “Music 101.” By keeping the three musical elements of melody, harmony and rhythm in mind you will craft memorable messages that move people to action and inspiration.

Jennifer V. Miller, a former flute player and now managing partner of SkillSource, helps midcareer professionals strategize their next big “leap.” She is a  co-author of “The Character-Based Leader,” blogs at The People Equation and tweets via @JenniferVMiller.