Freedom of Music
Music has always been a sanctuary for me; it keeps me sane in a distinctly irrational sort of way. Music grants me shelter from my logically addicted mind. It’s pure right brain delight and it remains one of the few pristine areas that analysis has not yet polluted – and I hope to keep it that way. I intentionally never learned to read music or studied an instrument for fear that it would subject music to the tyranny of left brain dominance that has spoiled just about everything else in our ‘rationally’ exuberant world.
I read that leading psychologists have concluded that mankind has a “story telling” problem – which basically means we are so intellectually nimble that whether we know something or not we are very capable of rationalizing a theory about it regardless of reality. Once again we have our left brain and its exaggerated sense of self-importance to credit for this “problem” of which Mark Twain observed many years ago serves salesman, attorneys and politicians very well. This point is raised only to begin to dent the armor of reason and suggest that when reason falls into the wrong hands it can be a dangerous thing.
In that spirit, I found a way to validate my musical self-indulgence when I learned that humans have evolved a unique audio-visual sensory bias. Apparently, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, sight and sound tag-teamed their way to the top of our sensory heap, out-wrestling smell, taste and touch in man’s natural selection grudge match. The theory hypothesizes that sound is a significant contributor to our reproductive success, adaptation and survival as a species – the body of evidence for which can be found every night in Honky Tonks all across this country. Certainly the way in which we use sound differs greatly from our cave dwelling ancestors, yet perhaps it is no less important to our survival today.
Music is processed through the temporal lobe of the brain which explains why it remains just out of the reach of the big Gorilla of cognition that lives in the adjoining cerebral cortex. So biologically and figuratively, music exists outside of rational judgment – it ‘is what it is’ irrespective of what the brain ‘thinks’ about it. It’s a right-now foot-tapping hand-clapping body sort of thing, not a data-driven analyze-this and study it some more tomorrow kind of thing. It’s the great equalizer that soothes the beast and quiets the “ghost in the machine” long enough to allow instinct and intuition a chance to breathe some fresh air.
TS Eliott referred to “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while it lasts.” And maybe that is the source of the power of music: its ability to transform us; to move our minds as well as our feet, thumping and bumping us out of our intellectual ruts. In demonstration of the complexity of our physiology and its creative cross-wiring, music helps us see through our ears. Where intellect would accuse music of being an accessory to the conspiracy of the senses to bypass reason, my heart defends music as an affirmation of humanity that is as much art as it is science.
Music is the sage that speaks an ancient tongue with primal roots. It’s reminiscent of Zen and its Koan riddles that were intentionally inaccessible to the intellect. Zen Masters offered these nonsensical riddles to push students to drop their intellectual attachments and find peace in a stream of consciousness. Yet thousands of years later and half a globe away, we still bang our heads against the walls of logic trying to make sense of a room full of irrationality.
In the absence of a personal Zen Master on our HR staff, maybe we just need to turn up the music and rock-out a little more often. Music might not solve the problem but it might just make solving the problem possible – or at least tolerable. Perhaps the Sufi whirling dervishes were on to something when they would grip a floor nail between their toes and spin around in order to empty their minds of their troubles. Of course its escapism – but as the song says: “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” – and sometimes getting away from yourself is the best medicine for finally understanding what ails you in the first place.
Yet in our dog-eat-dog, fasterbettercheaper, needed-it-yesterday culture we are afflicted with a terminal case of seriousness that snubs its nose at time-outs for anything other than molding progeny into smarter-brighter higher-achievers of behaviorally obsessed parents. This is a generation raised on a diet of no-pain, no-gain – and the exercise mantra has become so ubiquitous in our cultural ethos that we rationalize sacrificing parts of ourselves every day in the spirit of building a better mousetrap. Yet in the end we’re the rat caged by the very traps we built; offering prima facie evidence that even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
With deadlines looming, emails flying and cell phones ringing we’ve become catecholamine-aholics. In our perpetual, self-induced state of fight or flight we get our daily fix of these primal chemicals as they fill our bloodstream with enough adrenaline to keep us operating at “defcon-5” for hours – triggering basal metabolic rate increases to break down glycogen in the liver and glucose in skeletal muscles for a quick energy feed. And with our heart racing, bronchioles in the lungs dilate to admit more air while digestion slows and the bladder and colon prepare to unencumber us for action. This is prime time baby go, go, go.
So away we go, rushing from stop to stop, plodding our way through problems the best we can. The trouble is when you’re clawing, scratching and digging for every inch, it doesn’t take long before you’ve dug yourself into a serious rut. And despite Einstein’s warning that we can’t solve our problems in the same manner that we created them, we usually go right back to digging and clawing in a state of panic trying to get out of our hole anyways. With nubs for fingernails it’s easy to lose hope.
But be still grasshopper, there is another way. Be one with the Lotus flower that thrives in polluted waters, for so too can be your destiny. When faced with fight or flight choose to float instead. Pop in a cd, go for a run, sit by the river or practice what the Chinese call (in true onomatopoetic form) Wu-Wei – “doing by not doing.” Don’t always be so busy, sometimes just be. Recharge yourself – if not for yourself then for the greater purpose you serve.
What is true for the people within the organization seems to hold true for the organization itself. The organization needs time to not be so busy, but to just be, to catch its breath and unplug. By dedicating this time the organization can recharge and return to the real world with fresh eyes, a rested mind and eager hands.
But there’s even more to it than regeneration. I believe it’s actually how the work of leadership gets done. Leadership function takes us above the tree line into the realm of values, strategies, and organizational culture where our sharp tools of reason, analysis and logic have limited value – and often do more harm than good. At these higher altitudes trying to force the round peg of reason through the square hole of leadership exhausts resources with little gain.
In the eyes of the analytic hammer everything looks like a nail. But in reality not everything is solved by pounding; some things must be lifted-up and that takes an entirely different set of tools and a whole new approach to the work. That’s the paradigm gap that separates the twin peaks of management and leadership. Yet in the densely wooded forests of organizations the topography can be deceiving and depending on where you are standing it’s not always easy to see this gap and discern where the leadership trail begins and where the management trail ends.
As a result, we slip down the slope assuming that the same set of hiking skills and tools that carried us through the lower elevations will be equally effective at the top. Hanging by an ice pick and toe crampons the seasoned mountain climber knows better but from the comfort of our offices we don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency that should motivate us to pay attention to the change in terrain and change the way we climb.
Instead we pick away at the hard ice on the leadership slope like it’s the soft dirt of the management base camp, ignoring the consequences of our misjudgment. Analysis and insight may ride in the same tracks but they take us to two very different places and relying on analysis to resolve leadership issues is like using an X-Ray machine to read blood pressure. X-Ray’s do a wonderful job at figuring out what bones are broken but they’re not built to gauge arterial squeeze. It seems obvious in the medical example yet that’s essentially the context error we repeat time and time again when we allow the shadow of analysis to keep us from seeing insights that are standing right beside us. It’s like being snow blind but still trying to ascend the summit.
The symptoms of this chronic “analytic-itus” are all too common: frustrated with the elusiveness of logical answers amidst reams of research and analysis, we pile on more data and dig ever deeper through it, convinced that if we just drill down the logic a little more, study a little harder and debate longer we can take the analysis to a depth it’s never been – and we will emerge victorious from the rubble with a solution in hand. We circle the wagons and let no detail escape our study. Yet in reality the further we go down this path, the further we travel away from our destination. With standing room only our analytic left brain crowds out all possible creative, instinctive and insightful right brain contributions. That’s a great way to solve fine-grain management problems but it prevents us from doing the course-grain work of leadership.
In this respect the peaks of leadership and management may look the same but they are in fact more like mirrored images of each other. Where management honors science, leadership aspires to the humanities. Management reduces work into its components in the name of economy, control and efficiency while leadership seeks to understand holistically and synthesize elements to inspire, liberate and magnify. Management depends on linear logic and abundant data while leadership eludes mathematical calculation and solves problems sideways favoring frugality of data to maintain a focus on fundamentals. Leadership avoids the trap of wanting to know everything and seeks to distill patterns from events, parse information, and infer direction that is more visceral than cerebral.
Malcolm Gladwell in his latest best-selling book Blink notes that the human capacity for insight is physiologically rooted in our limbic system. It’s the vestiges of primal instinct and intuition. It’s the hair on your neck rising as predators approach before you even realize it. It’s knowing something without knowing why you know it – you just know. It’s the power of a glance that extracts clues from the world around us in less time than it takes to blink – and speed dials that information directly to the hidden control towers of our brain that are hot-linked into our physical and emotional architecture and power our choices and behavior without our conscious consent.
The author describes what he calls the selective bias of our culture for applying the tool of methodical deliberation – or thick description – to every type of problem whether it’s appropriate or not. Instead he argues that we need to take our capacity for “thin slicing” meaning from our world and use that ancient skill to solve problems that have no inherent right or wrong – value choices, strategies, preferences – which I would argue is exactly what leadership in building community is all about.
Building community is more art than science and if we accept the value of both reason and intuition in performing their respective roles, a significant part of what we do as a leadership team should be figuring out how to be less deliberate and more insightful. We have not yet evolved an intuition/logic switch so until we do it is imperative for us to cultivate space that quiets the incessant whine of reason and invites insight to join us at our leadership table. Tap into the reservoir of Bays Mountain and morning music to unlock the door to our intuitive selves.
Better yet, in the spirit of wellness, go exercise – and believe it or not, as you push your heart rate above 145 bpm, you’ll be activating your biological sensors to signal the brain to shift gears from logic dominated thought to those instinctual patterns that are hard-wired into our neurology and seek to protect core functions under conditions of duress. Run even faster and as your heart rate reaches 175 bpm your cognitive function is nearly disabled and with no cognition left in the tank, you’re running on pure instinct. Right about then – BAM – out of nowhere, comes one of those sudden revelations, an insight into a problem that you’ve been chewing on for days. When you calm the surface noise of reason, insights have room to bubble up.