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Kevin Sharer: Turn Up the Music

HBS Professor Kevin Sharer

HBS Professor Kevin Sharer

Former Amgen CEO and HBS Professor Kevin Sharer asks how music can help us unlock the creativity needed to innovate and thrive.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]T[/stag_dropcap]he night air is sweet, cool, and soothing at this most iconic of all music venues in the City of Angels. Eighteen thousand people wait in delicious anticipation for one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. We are as close as you can be without being on stage. Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and whoever else is in the band tonight will be on a small stage only three feet off the ground projecting into the crowd where we have perfect sight lines nearly close enough to touch Mick. We can see the song order for the set, hand-written on a vertical plexiglass board where Keith can easily see it. They bound onto the stage. Keith strikes the opening chord for “Start Me Up.” Electrifying! Shattering! Commenting on the passing of the inventor of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, a writer said, “It could blow the walls of Jericho down.” We feel them fall.livewell_harbus (2)

Keith looks at Charlie with an almost imperceptible nod; and the Hollywood Bowl becomes alive with the crashing, commanding drums reaching us, penetrating to some deeper, more primal place. Ronnie lays down the bass line. Mick steps up and at the moment the crowd can wait no longer, he joyfully and with full power and presence fills the air with the familiar and sacred song, as if for the first time, as the crowd explodes in euphoric recognition. Close by us, at the end of the runway we notice Johnny Depp intently studying these supreme artists, emotion visible on his face.

What is beginning to happen inside all of us as we feel the music? Why does this seem so different to our logical, rational, too self-controlled psyche? Why does it matter?

What Does Music Do to Us?

The well-structured, familiar, routine thought processes are relaxed and receptive to input. Strongly held biases, unexamined beliefs, and tight self-control are less confining and judgmental. Joy, possibility, and receptivity are manifest. That this happens is not unusual or unexpected in the presence of music which we find deeply moving, inspiring, and delightful. So what? Well, sometimes this fully logical and often overly analytic mindset can be at odds with our purpose as leaders. We hope to grow as human beings and leaders, and in so doing, lead and inspire our organizations, to improve and to be true to their values and mission. We want to try to make a positive difference in the world. We are not here to defend, apologize for, or accept the status quo in the context of our areas of responsibility and influence or even society as large. We labor mightily to prepare ourselves here at one of the world’s best academies of learning, where rationality, analysis, process, best practice, and innovation are our music. It is the very mission of the school to develop leaders who make a difference.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]T[/stag_dropcap]his worthy aspiration is often difficult to hold as our “True North,” to use Bill George’s apt phrase. Why? The world wants us to fit in, conform, do things their way and, in general, smooth off any rough edges. Use the right phrases, don’t give offense, fit in. Fitting in is no bad thing as long as we hold on to our ambition, creativity, and our willingness to take risk. We must not allow this status quo to dampen our courage and intuition to see how things could and should be different and better. America is as welcoming a place as any other for creativity and positive rebellion, but even here the forces of opposition are strong, not always visible, and pervasive.

lat-micktaylor-wre0004892702-19710326 (2)So, consider this healthy approach. One that can yield new ideas even though it might not be so easy to sustain. Simultaneously, hold two opposing thoughts in your mind, like a yin and yang. Yang says we need to find our way in the world and our organization and there are rules, norms, and processes we must respect and learn how to effectively obey, display, and use. Yin, on the other hand, argues that we need to be constructively dissatisfied, alive to the good ideas or intuition that is all around us or inside us waiting to be heard or recognized. We can and should subject these ideas to examination and improvement but first we must be almost childlike in our willingness to see and hear them in the first place.

Back to the music. How could it or its companion in expression and inspiration- Art- play a role in this process of idea or intuition generation? We are creatures of enormous and untapped power, range of emotion, thought, persistence, resilience, creativity, and imagination. We teach and utilize the best processes we can find and validate. But due to the limitations of our understanding, tools, and societal needs and norms; these processes and learnings are too often linear, inherently limiting, confining, and rote. We have trouble accessing, interpreting, and benefitting from intuition. Artists are often seen as beings apart and different. Innovation usually comes from the few “inspired” rather than the large, well-funded, well-organized, properly lead, classically trained, and traditionally incentivized.

Music can allow us to loosen the grip of all this linear training, to access our deepest thoughts, emotions, and long suppressed store of Rolling-Stones (2)experience. We can be more open to previously unrecognized connections and patterns. We can unlock puzzles or inspire ourselves to take risks we were initially too timid to accept. I am not advocating abandoning logic, analysis, deep reflection, and the counsel of others; but a healthy, intense, intimate, and frequent musical interlude might be just what the doctor ordered. Have you ever heard Adele sing” Rolling in the Deep”, or the sax in Gerry Rafferty’s opening riff of “Baker Street”, or Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man?” Turn it up.

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March 23, 2015