Zen and the Art of Leadership: Thoughts for Young Music Administrators

January 1, 2008

Richard Green, Chair of the Department of Music at Miami University of Ohio, was the first chair of the Committee on Administration when it was founded in 2003. He is a tireless advocate for promoting administrative work as a stimulating, worthwhile, and rewarding direction in a person's academic career. His essay in this issue of the Newsletter continues the theme of academic leadership, our focus in this column since the beginning of the year. He directs his words particularly toward new administrators and those who aspire to leadership positions, offering them as well as all readers reflections on epiphanic moments from his work in administration. 

-Keith Ward, Chair, CMS Committee on Administration

During the past year, a thoughtful series of essays on music administration has appeared in this Newsletter. We have read the remarks of Keith Ward, the chair of the CMS Committee on Administration, a review of two books on leadership by Karen DeMol, and, most recently, a perceptive article by Don Casey on the styles of leadership, "Leading from Behind." With the former remarks as a backdrop, I offer the comments below as a contribution to the protean topic of leadership in music. But first I would like to point the interested reader to a resource that is now accessible on the CMS website: Musical Chairs: A Management Handbook for Music Executives in Higher Education. A compilation of articles by several authors, including the late Frederick Miller, Samuel Hope, Executive Director of NASM, Robert Werner and others, the book discusses issues ranging from music technology, fund-raising, the techniques of leadership in music, and even legal issues of our profession.

Before beginning, I think it is worth noting that according to our CMS Directory of Music Faculties, there are 1,800 institutions registered in the Society, all of which, as far as I can determine, have someone (a dean, director, chair, etc.) who serves as the head of the unit. This is true for both two-year and four-year institutions. Even considering the fact that a large number of these administrators likely also serve as professors in specific disciplinary areas (e.g., theory, general studies, etc.), the number of people serving as administrators is substantial, surpassing many of the specialty areas listed in the Directory. It is justifiable, then, that we have come to treat the job of music administrators on a par with all other disciplines of music in higher education.

I have two observations to make and would like to direct them specifically toward young and aspiring music administrators. First, I want to encourage us as administrators to recognize that it is only in the company of others that we evaluate our success; it is only through others that we realize our vision. If we seek to improve the unit for which we are responsible, we have to find productive ways to work with people, most prominently with faculty and the central administration of our institution. If we agree that our primary constituency is our students, that our primary responsibility is for the well-being of the department, and that our primary obligation is to the preservation of professional standards of music, then our relationship with faculty must take center stage. My second point is to urge us all to examine introspectively our personal strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as administrators. For it is by building on our strengths and consciously working to compensate for our weaknesses, that we can most comfortably succeed in collaborating with our colleagues. Let me tell a tale.

In the corner of the bookcase in my office is a small, battery-run clock. Hidden between books in the corner of a low shelf, it is purposely positioned so that it can be seen by no one other than me while I'm seated at my desk. Throughout the day, as I listen to the concerns, complaints, and ideas of colleagues, students, and other visitors, I occasionally glance furtively to the opposite wall and read the face of the silently ticking clock. I confess that the clock and I have had a turbulent relationship and, during the early years of my administrative career, I hated its impartiality and inexorability. There were never enough hours in the day to be the kind of administrator, teacher, father, husband, friend that I visualized I should be, and still have the quietude necessary for my own needs. I know that I am not the only one who has ever felt this way. Each day, as people visited my office and talked interminably, I heard about marital problems, complaints about the university, difficulties with students, and even about body aches and pains. As it grew apparent that faculty were using me as a village priest, confessing sins and secrets, they began to refer to me not as the "chair," but as the "couch." Very funny; but I found it excruciatingly frustrating and thought it a colossal waste of time. As we have all learned, good leaders know when and how to set limits, especially when it comes to intrusions on their own schedules. I should tell these inconsiderate people to get out, in a gentle sort of way, of course, because I have more important things to do.

However, there came a time several years ago when, in a sort of Zen moment, when two things became clear to me. The first was that I was far better off if I let go of the frustration and stopped complaining about faculty, even though, as we all know, they sometimes do downright goofy things. While we all have bragging rights over the impressive things that faculty accomplish, of course, I would like to discourage young administrators from habitually telling stories out of school, as we have all heard administrators do. We have to rise above it, permanently.

The second epiphanic realization I had was that it was just not in my nature to escort people out of my office. Surely there are others who feel the same way. It became apparent that one of my strengths as a chair was the nearly inexhaustible patience I had acquired in listening to faculty tell me their stories: the value I placed on being empathic to faculty, the validation I could provide to their frustrations, the confidence I could sometimes restore in them by assuring them that they had been understood. To me, sitting with faculty and listening actively to them is the most important thing I can do at that moment. Since the way we as administrators operate on a daily basis has to do with the art and craft of dealing with interruptions, I urge young department chairs to reflect on how they want to interact with faculty. It may be more efficient to spend longer periods of time talking and listening patiently to faculty than it would be to visit with them more frequently for shorter periods.

Those who have written in this column all have favorite books on leadership - there are literally thousands to choose from - and no doubt most of the readers of this article do, too. It is curious to note that with a few significant exceptions most of these books, from Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops to Jim Collins's Good to Great, rely on corporate models. (Interested readers of this column should visit the online bibliography of related writings under Career Services/Administration.) It has probably struck several of you as peculiar that we in the creative and performing arts have been looking to the CEOs of big business for advice on leadership. Certainly there is much to learn from their experience and often divergent styles of management, but aren't we supposed to be the ones who value non-linear thinking, working "out of the box," and process over product?

My book du jour on leadership is Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work, by Robert Austin and Lee Devin (Prentice Hall, 2003). Contrary to most of the books we read on the subject, this one, as its title suggests, discusses styles of management derived from the arts and applies them to the corporate boardroom. For managers in the arts, especially younger ones, the style of leadership suggested here will be comfortable, provided one can tolerate uncertainty, delegate authority and, above all, maintain an environment of collegial respect and the acceptance of change. The arguments set forth derive from the premise that it is rare for truly enduring ideas to arise de novo from an intellectual big-bang. Great ideas emerge, so the argument goes, from a collective, cooperative, and creative process in which several people are involved; effective ideas are not necessarily imposed, nor are they always the inspiration of a singular individual. One reads: "Managers should look to collaborative artists rather than to more traditional management models if they want to create economic value in this new century."

There is a method of cooperative discovery which the authors of this book refer to as "knowledge work," through which we lead not by providing prescriptive instructions for solutions to problems, but by providing an epistemic environment in which people are given the freedom to develop and implement new ideas and, while experimenting with problems, discover practical solutions. As the authors say: "Often in this kind of work, time spent planning what you want to do will be better spent in actually doing (or letting others in your charge do), trying something you haven't thought out in detail so you can quickly incorporate what you learn from the experience in the next attempt." This approach, which allows ideas to be formulated, revised, and to be tested is called "artful making" because, mirabile dictu, it is what artists do. The pianist tries slightly different tempi; the conductor experiments with different dynamics; the instructor presents the same material in different ways; just as administrators work constantly with faculty to fine-tune the operations of complex departments. We don't have to know all of the answers, nor see all of the problems. We as administrators, by our tolerance for diverse ideas and patience with process of artful making, can set the tone for a productive, optimistic and respectful environment of dialogue among faculty and finally take our eye off that clock in our office.

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