Insight article


Harmonise Ambiguity: Lead the Chorus with Story

In Feel Like a Number, 1978’s plaintive rock paean to crushing corporate anonymity, the American songwriter Bob Seger roars about life as “just another spoke in a great big wheel, like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field”.

It’s a story that endures. Musicians, like all creatives, have long bemoaned the white-collar world and its structures – its need for order where art seeks chaotic, free abandon. It’s easy to see leaders as villains in this narrative: the wheel crushing the butterfly, the field of uniformity swallowing up the unique and the unusual. But the paradox is that creativity often thrives between the parameters marked out by robust leadership. Great music is just a powerful, emotive narrative told by great musical leaders, and the same power of story can be harnessed in business to inspire, accelerate change and transform performance.

In this era of uncertainty and ambiguity, the leaders of the 21st century must embrace new ways of imagining the traditional management story. This is not the management landscape of Bob Seger’s 1970s – or even of a decade ago, when “topics such as inclusion, fairness, social responsibility, understanding the role of automation, and leading in a network were not part of the leadership manifesto” (Deloitte, 2019). The future is now – and story is an essential tool in shaping how your organisation embraces that future.

The 21st century organisation is no longer judged on just financial results. It must be diverse and inclusive, or risk alienating both staff and consumer; it must be involved with and empathetic to its wider context in society, or be dismissed as regressive; it must understand the advent of the ‘superjob’ and its symbiosis with artificial intelligence and automation, or risk falling behind in an accelerating technological arms race; it must access and exploit the ‘alternative’ remote personnel, or risk leaving unfillable gaps in its workforce.

We sometimes refer to the ‘symphonic’ C-suite, an ideal balance of leadership talents which can overcome any obstacle when deployed effectively. But to address the challenges of the 21st century we need to tell a broader story – one that gives a voice to the orchestra, not just the conductors.

At The Storytellers, we focus on the 3Ms of behavioural change: building motivation through meaning, connection and personal storytelling; giving people the means to help them learn independently through storytelling; and creating momentum to keep this new shared story alive.

Leaders need to provide motivation to their ‘orchestra’, through the inspiring power of story. They need to give them the means through which they can achieve a collective mission – the organisation’s platinum album, its sold-out world tour, if you will. And they need to maintain the momentum of success, so that the unforgettable ‘song’ isn’t remembered as merely a ‘one-hit wonder’.

Story can bring your strategy to life, and help you lead like a maestro. 

In a 2009 TED Talk on the musician-management styles of some of the 20th century’s most famous conductors, the Israeli musician and leadership expert Itay Talgam likens the concert hall to the ‘little office’ of the orchestra leader. “Or rather a cubicle, an open-space cubicle, with a lot of space,” he says. “And in front of all that noise, you do a very small gesture. And suddenly, out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music. The joy is about enabling other people’s stories to be heard at the same time.”

The key is treating these people as members of an emotionally collaborative creation, rather than just instruments in a room. “When it’s needed, the authority is there,” Talgam says. “It’s very important. But authority is not enough to make people your partners.” He warns against the heavy-handed authoritarianism of the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, who received a letter from the 700 employees of the Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan which read: “You’re a great conductor. We don’t want to work with you. Please resign.”

Get this balance right, however, and Talgam says you will unlock irresistible potential. “You’re telling the story,” he says. “And even briefly, you become the storyteller to which the community, the whole community, listens to.”

The music journalist Tom Service spent hours watching how these leaders work with their musicians while researching his book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras. His conclusions draw obvious parallels with the personalities of the business world, where human dynamics are equally delicate; like Talgam, he cautions against didacticism. The best leaders tell an inspiring, inclusive story in which everyone has an important role.

“The last thing the best conductors do is to force a group of musicians to do their bidding,” he told The Guardian. “Performances are constructed through patient hours of listening, so that each player has the chance to build up a similar mental, musical and emotional map of the piece in question.” He cites Simon Rattle’s relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, in which he is “continually shaping and moulding the orchestra’s sound”, rather than directing or controlling it, and says that while every musician he spoke to wanted to be valued both as an individual as well as part of a collective, “they also would not tolerate a lack of inspiration or leadership from the person on the podium.” In other words, empathy without direction, and vice versa, will hit a bum note. Your workforce – your ‘musicians’ – need to be connected to their purpose through the story you tell as an inspiring leader.

The history of music is peppered with blood-curdling tales of tyrannical leaders, the autocrats whose musicians were in bondage to the story rather than free agents within it. For every Simon Rattle, there is a James Brown, who kept his band in a permanent state of groove-tight performance anxiety with mid-gig gestures equating to dollar penalties for every missed beat or imperfect riff. Thankfully, there are also leadership heroes aplenty in this tale, inspirational creatives who knew how to get the best out of their musicians by finding ways to touch their emotional core, and by successfully involving them in their creative story.

Reeves Gabrels, who founded Tin Machine with David Bowie, says that the iconic pop genius told his band members the story of a new song by giving them visual prompts to help them pursue a fresh sound.

“The first time we worked together he said, ‘Maybe you could build German gothic cathedral architecture out of guitar’”, Gabrels explained to the music website Quartz.  “Other times it was, ‘This should be like Jackson Pollock,’ or ‘This should be like ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dali, but with melting guitars instead of melting clocks.’ The reference points were rarely specifically musical. They were almost always visual or about feeling.”

Bowie was inviting his collaborators to fashion the musical story with him, to be architects in this cathedral of sound rather than just builders. Like all great storytellers, he wanted you to participate; he chose the creative tools, but then placed them in your hands. He inspired belief in the story, united his team with this creative inspiration, and accelerated their performance to new musical heights.

Academics at Warwick Business School have taken this to its logical extension – that good leadership fosters greater productivity regardless of discipline – by correlating the leadership skills of jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Art Blakey with the best practice of successful entrepreneurs. In her paper Leading Entrepreneurial Teams: Insights from Jazz, the school’s professor of Entrepreneurship, Deniz Ucbasaran, finds the mightiest giants of jazz history have much to teach us about business leadership. Ellington inspired decades of loyalty in his musicians through the alchemy of motivation and respect for their freedom; Blakey preferred an avuncular warmth, a paternal concern for his team’s well-being. Their success is less about a particular management style than striking the right balance between a leadership role and a collaborative one; by being able to articulate a vision, to tell a story about a musical destination and how it can be reached.

“If you have a creative process, you have to have talented employees,” Ucbasaran tells The Guardian. “But talent is not always easy to manage. You have to give them freedom and space,but direct them in subtle ways so that the end result comes together harmoniously.”

The true leaders of the 21st century can conduct the tricky ambiguity of modern business by telling a story that inspires a shared emotion that people can connect with – like the harmony in a beloved album track, or the last shared chorus of that unforgettable tour. Storytelling provides the motivation, means and momentum to help you strike that perfect chord.

Alastair Hagger