I remember reading a story about Mark Twain in Leonard Sweet’s excellent book, Summoned to Lead. The story goes that Twain had a bad habit of swearing, a habit that offended his wife’s sensibilities. Having failed on numerous occasions to correct this distasteful habit Twain’s wife finally resorted to a shock tactic. One day, on his return home she decided to greet him with a barrage of abusive language. Her logic was that perhaps, were to hear his own language in use, he would reform his ways. So, as Twain arrived home that day he was met at the front door with a stream of obscenities as she threw at him every distasteful word she could recall him ever using. The story goes that Twain listened quietly, holding his composure and without interruption, until she had exhausted her borrowed vocabulary, following which he replied, “My dear, you have the words, but not the music”.
It is a great story, although I don’t know if it is true. However, it is a story that brings into sharp focus an important aspect of leadership: having the words is not enough – you also need the music.
Leadership has often defaulted into something of a performance – mere rhetoric, having the ‘right words’, posturing, and pretence. We come across leadership that is devoid of substance and adrift of any deeper meaning and significance. It is founded on charisma and skills rather than on character and purpose.
As a leader you need to know what is ‘your music’. As a leader you need to be attuned to the music for if not, you run the risk of being irrelevant and perhaps destructive. It is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the organisation’s values and purpose are reflected in the organisation’s behaviour and decisions.
That alignment is essential to authenticity and the practice of that synergy starts with the leader. I am amazed at how often I come across executive teams for whom the company’s values are vague at best and a non-entity at worse. They operate oblivious of the values that sit proudly displayed in their foyer or in the corridors, and the dislocation is usually unmasked during the down times, during the ‘informal’ events when the true self is revealed. Tough times can also strip away pretence and reveal an organisation adrift from its value base. Buffet once said that, “when the tide of growth goes out, you see who has been swimming naked”. You have the words but not the music.
It would be an interesting conversation to have with your team: what is our music? I suspect it could be the pathway to some rich conversation and refreshing insights.
Smart leaders hear the music. They ensure that their words and the music are in harmony. They know the importance of this and are quick to detect and act when the words become severed from the music. I suspect that there are two musical scores to which leaders need to be attuned: An internal organisational score and an ever-changing external one. Failure to pay attention to both is not an option. Smart leaders understand that both require attentive listening. Both are relevant and ensuring that the music from both is heard is the their responsibility.
So, what is your music? And more importantly, are you listening to it?