A mentor of mine recommended a book for me to read by James Kugel titled, In the Valley of the Shadow. Seven years ago, Kugel, a retired Harvard professor of Hebrew literature, was diagnosed with an aggressive, likely fatal form of cancer. Given two years to live he has since made a full recovery from the cancer, something that led him to pen this book which is an exploration of his state of mind during this time. Kugel seeks to uncover what he calls the “starting point of religious consciousness”, an ancient “sense of self” and a way of fitting into the world that is quite at odds with the usual one.

In short it is a remarkable book, especially for someone my age as my son helpfully pointed out without a trace of intended helpfulness! However it was something early in Kugel’s writing that has arrested my attention.  On being told about his condition, the main change that he experienced was that the “background music suddenly stopped”. The music of daily life that’s constantly playing, the music of infinite time and possibilities was now suddenly gone. The background music was replaced by nothing- just silence. With this silence came an overwhelming sense of smallness, something Kugel describes as, “one little person sitting in the late summer sun, with only a few things left to do”.

Kugel’s vivid metaphor of the background music got me thinking about the background music leaders need to hear if they are to lead in such a way that others choose to follow.  Recently I had yet another occasion to take a group of leaders horse whispering – something that we in TomorrowToday use to help unlock the deeper insights of leading in the new world of work. It is a magical experience that more often than not results in a profound impact being made on those fortunate enough to experience it.  Conscious of Kugel’s notion of background music, I encouraged the participants to give special attention to their own ‘background music’ during the course of the experience. I encouraged them to listen to themselves and ask questions as to their own responses and behaviour as they worked with their horses.

 Somehow the debrief that followed the experience tracked a different course to previous such conversations. It was almost as if the intentional tuning into the background music elicited a deeper level of insight and reflection as to what had been learnt through the horse whispering experience.

I was intrigued. Could it be that one of the missing elements of leadership was leading oblivious to or, to put it another way, in a state of deafness to, the background music? Could it be that when this happens, leadership jars and become disconnected to effective practice? Could it be that authentic leadership is dependent on being in tune with one’s own background music? Just how important is the background music and what exactly is it?

At this stage I have more questions than answers but I suspect I might be onto something important in the quest to understand leadership and how best to develop leaders. I have long held that leading without an articulated leadership philosophy is flawed at best and dangerous at worse. I believe that theory needs to inform practice and that one without the other is severely limited. But now I have a more engaging way of exploring and possibly articulating such thoughts – that of ‘background music’.

What is your background music? I suspect it differs from person to person. How best do you become aware of your background music and how then do you take time to listen to it and live from it?  What difference will doing so make in the course of how you live and lead every day? How does one detect subtle changes to one’s background music?

As I said, more questions than answers. However they are inviting questions and ones that warrant further exploration and interrogation. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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