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What music teaches leaders about reflection

Learn from the traits of great musicians and how you can apply them to your leadership.

4 min read


What music teaches leaders about reflection

Spencer Imbrock

Every thoughtful leader I know wonders from time to time how she is doing. When this happens, it is time to shift focus from doing for others to doing for self. We call it reflection, which is that time spent putting self in perspective.

Recently I came across “The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry” by Barry Green, a concert bassist. Green focuses on what it takes to make good music, beginning with a musician’s inner self. As an author, Green is both observer and teacher. And, having been part of prominent orchestras as well as a talented interviewer, he looks at music from multiple dimensions: craft, profession and gift.

The Mastery of Music” features insights provided by Green but also by the many musicians — violinists, cellists, trumpeters and singers — he interviews. Three themes of this work resonate with me because they can help leaders make reflection a regular practice. Let’s take them one at a time.


What can you do and why do you do it? Musicians begin mostly because they are good at what they do and people encourage them. Becoming a professional requires the insight to understand the power of the music and your role in bringing it to life. Similarly, leaders emerge from seeing opportunities to make a difference. As with music, it is not a one-time thing; it’s a continual process of questioning self and results. Hence the need for reflection.


What you do matters. It takes discipline to become a virtuoso trumpeter or violist. Malcolm Gladwell posits that it “requires a huge investment of time” to achieve a degree of proficiency. And for a virtuoso, that level is only a beginning, because you need to deliver on that promise every time you play. For leaders, mastery comes through experience: from first managing self, then getting the opportunity to manage others. Leadership is the mastery of bringing out the best in others, as musicians bring out the best in the music they play.


It’s not about you, it’s about others. Every great artist comes to the realization, at some point in his career, that people care more about what you are producing than what you are. That is the lesson for musicians as well as leaders. Yes, people admire accomplishments, but they appreciate them more because they have been moved by what you have done. A violinist can bring an audience to tears with the poignancy of his playing. A leader can guide a team to accomplish a task because they believe in what they do. It comes down to purpose, and that purpose resonates within us all.

There is another aspect to musicianship that pertains to leadership, and that’s harmony. In a physical sense, musicians who play with others need to harmonize to sound good; they also need to meld as colleagues. We see this most vividly with small groups such as trios and quartets. Each giving to the other enables the total sound to be better than it could with a solo artist.

Leaders need to harmonize with those they lead. They need to get people to pull together in ways that bring out the best of themselves in spite of individual and collective limitations. While we say that musicians master their art, most would say their mastery is a process. As with music, leadership is a process of commitment rooted in joy for what you do and the positive effect it has on others.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including“MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” Learn more about why he wrote “GRACE” in this short video.

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