4 Incredible Leadership Lessons Music Taught Me

“The best way to “know” a thing is in the context of another discipline.” –Leonard Bernstein

Music, like any form of fine art, has taught me incredible leadership and life lessons over the years. I have outlined below the 4 lessons and their deep impact on me.

Music and Mindfulness – The quote couldn’t be truer in the context of music and everything I learned as a result. I was privileged to attend a keynote delivered by Dr. Shauna Shapiro in a Cisco leadership event a few years ago. As one of the leading experts on the topic of Mindfulness, she described the practice as Intention + Attention with Kindness. In her TEDx talk, she reiterates that “what you practice, grows stronger.”

Practicing music is one of my morning rituals. This intention combined with kind attention, helps set the tone for the rest of the day. Some days, my singing is sublime. Other days, it is ordinary. I feel the struggle Dr. Shapiro describes and I’m almost inclined to stop singing. But that simply won’t do. In the vibrational field of deep resonance, there’s no space for thought, judgment, or anger. I need to practice with kind attention and compassion. I wonder if this, more than anything, is a contributing factor to the legacy of the musical masters? Beyond the exquisite timbre of their voices, versatility, or astounding range, I realize that rituals such as these were a part of their wholebeing. Because all of the doing was informed by their being.  It draws a fascinating parallel between mindfulness and leadership.

Tabla Blog

Music and Deep Listening – One of the strongest fight-flight responses I experienced was in the music room! It happened when I first started to sing with the Tabla (Indian drums). Although I practiced regularly with the iTablaPro (iOS app), I had limited exposure to singing with a Tabla artist. It turned out to be a brutal examination of my musicianship. Despite being familiar with the 16-beat cycle, it felt like being in foreign land amidst signs I couldn’t follow, around people who seemed to speak an eloquent language that I had no clue of.

What had caused this acute discomfort? In the Khyal form of music, some compositions start from the 9th syllable or beat. Others begin from the 7th, 12th, or 13th. The expectation is that I improvise but if I choose to sing the first line, it has to align with the 9th syllable before I get lost in the melody again. This seems straightforward but it’s a steep learning curve for a beginner. It’s like trying to swim butterfly, elegantly. Upon first attempt.     

It was during this struggle that I met a great teacher who advised me to listen to the rhythmic pattern every night, till I fell asleep. I diligently followed his advice. Night after night, I listened intently but with little or no success. But after a while, I noticed a change. I was having less trouble identifying the 9th beat! In fact, I was getting better. The alpha brain waves had succeeded in helping me learn something I had struggled with, for months.

This is work-in-progress for a student of music. But it is just as real for today’s leader. Amidst the uncertainty and volatility of tectonic shifts in the world, the need to develop emotional acumen through astute and deep listening has never been greater.


Music and the Power to Heal – Years ago, I was with a trauma patient in the ICU. The prognosis wasn’t encouraging. Weary and sad, he made a baffling request when he asked me to sing. I sat as close as I could and willingly obliged his favorite tunes. Within a few minutes of the music, his facial expression softened. It became less troubled and more peaceful as he fell into gentle sleep. It became our secret, routine. Sometimes, he would be delirious and unresponsive but remarkably, he would always respond to the music. He would even tap feebly but in perfect rhythm and ask me to continue if I stopped. It was astonishing and humbling to realize (again) the power of music to heal.

Music and Team Work – From Indian classical music to jazz quartets, team work is imperative to individual and team success. It’s lean, agile, and spontaneous. In his book, Yes to the Mess, jazz pianist and management scholar Frank J. Barrett shares surprising leadership lessons from jazz. One of the lessons that inspired and stayed with me was his call to perform and experiment at the same time. This calls for a confluence of collaboration, trust, and collective creativity while constantly being aware that it’s the music, that is at the forefront of it all. The musician is simply the medium.

What is the music of your leadership communicating? To your teams, peers, leaders, and stakeholders? How has music healed, transformed, or elevated you or your teams? Please leave a comment or start a dialogue. I can’t wait to learn with you!

*Illustrations: Flickr, Unsplash 

BW Anitha Aswth PortfolioAnitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams. 


4 thoughts on “4 Incredible Leadership Lessons Music Taught Me”

  1. Great blog! Nice job of drawing parallel with Music and life/work. Makes lot of sense.

    – madhu

  2. Thanks for sharing this.I’m currently working on the f# minor nocturne! they’re beautiful pieces.Don’t get me wrong, you have to be strong and confident to be successful in just about anything you do – but with music, there’s a deeper emotional component to your failures and successes. If you fail a chemistry test, it’s because you either didn’t study enough, or just aren’t that good at chemistry (the latter of which is totally understandable). But if you fail at music, it can say something about your character. It could be because you didn’t practice enough – but, more terrifyingly, it could be because you aren’t resilient enough. Mastering chemistry requires diligence and smarts, but mastering a piano piece requires diligence and smarts, plus creativity, plus the immense capacity to both overcome emotional hurdles, and, simultaneously, to use that emotional component to bring the music alive.Before I started taking piano, I had always imagined the Conservatory students to have it so good – I mean, for their homework, they get to play guitar, or jam on their saxophone, or sing songs! What fun! Compared to sitting in lab for four hours studying the optical properties of minerals, or discussing Lucretian theories of democracy and politics, I would play piano any day.

    But after almost three years of piano at Orpheus Academy, I understand just how naïve this is. Playing music for credit is not “easy” or “fun” or “magical” or “lucky.” Mostly, it’s really freakin’ hard. It requires you to pick apart your piece, play every little segment over and over, dissect it, tinker with it, cry over it, feel completely lame about it, then get over yourself and start practicing again. You have to be precise and diligent, creative and robotic. And then – after all of this – you have to re-discover the emotional beauty in the piece, and use it in your performance.

    1. Thank you for your beautiful comment. Everything that ever needed to be articulated about music has been expressed in your comment. It made my day. May music continue to help you re-discover YOU and through that, the depths of music itself.

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