What Music Can Teach Us about Leadership and Character

Ann Phelps, Director of Programming for Leadership and Character, delivered a pre-concert talk as part of the Seacrest Artists Series, which hosted the acapella group Take 6 on September 19. A classically trained singer who tours with the Theodicy Jazz Collective, Phelps has a background in the intersection between community building and art. In her talk, she explored how music and art is infusing the work she does with the Program for Leadership and Character.

Phelps drew on Aristotle’s suggestion that, due to the similarities of rhythms and melodies to the “true natures of anger, gentleness, courage, temperance,” music has the “power to produce a certain quality in the character of our souls.” While the philosophical exploration of the virtues appeals to our understanding of virtues, melody, harmony, and rhythm connect them directly to our emotions.”

Just as music is composed of basic elements, Phelps noted that the musical landscape of the world is changing. Compared to the neat “home away home” progression that has been the formula of Western music since Bach, popular music of today incorporates the sounds of ancient and far-away cultures, the sounds of the natural world, and often resists the clear establishment of a musical “home” to which we can resolve . In essence, “music is now as diverse as the people making it.”

So is our understanding of leadership. Now that the tradition of leadership as a positional, hierarchical system is showing its age, visions of shared leadership are rising in response. The group Take 6 is a prime example of such shared leadership. They know they cannot produce their music without the collaboration of each member and their willingness to share leadership responsibilities. Of equal import to leadership is the presence and willingness of people to follow.  It takes practical wisdom and experience to discern when is the time to lead or to follow. Phelps suggests that it is truly a heroic act to “be the first one to join.”