The Day The Music Died

Every company wants talent. But not every company is bestowed with the leadership that unleashes talent’s power. Talent without leadership is as good as spitting into a gale-force wind.

I learned that lesson growing up in a working-class district of Toronto in the 1950s. Back then, every public primary school fed into one large junior high school after the sixth grade. For me, there was a special feature about junior high beyond a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex and the temptations of juvenile delinquency. The attraction was this: One of the junior high’s nine grade 7 classes would have the opportunity to study and play a musical instrument as part of the curriculum. But there was one big catch—no one got into that distinguished assembly of violins, violas, cellos and basses without talent.

To test our talent, board of education representatives visited every school and played a series of quick 3-note sequences to grade 6 students. Each student was asked to write down which of the three notes had the highest pitch and which one had the lowest. I happened to be one of just four 11-year olds from my school accepted into the junior high’s instrumental music class.

Under the guidance of a remarkable teacher, (her name was Miss Mathews), that class soon became adept as a unified orchestra. The camaraderie was incredible, and we competed in several city-wide competitions against other schools—placing first, every time. You see, amongst many things, Miss Mathews taught us the difference between hearing and listening. I’ll explain it this way: Hearing is the sum of the parts—one big melody. Listening is the ability to pick out each individual instrument within the symphony. The appreciation of music from listening enhances the enjoyment.

This young leader (I’m guessing she was in her early 20s at the time) went the extra mile, sacrificing her own time for after-school practices, and field trips for us to see, and listen to The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In return for her patience and selfless nurturing of our talent, we gave Miss Mathews our very best. In the 8th grade, ditto the orchestra’s competition results—more first place trophies, ribbons, and accolades.

Then the music died.

In music, sports, business, and life, nothing happens without great leadership.

Miss Mathews departed. Her replacement inherited the same talent that delivered first place finishes in every festival entered over the past two years. But, there was another of those big catches—the new music teacher was woefully weak in leadership. In a matter of weeks, he had lost our respect. That talented orchestra was never to win again—not even close. Musically, Grade 9 turned into a painfully long and unproductive year.

This lesson in leadership will last a lifetime. In music, sports, business, and life, nothing happens without great leadership. Add talent to that pre-requisite of success and the music never dies.

PS: The kid in that picture? That’s me.


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Image Credit: John Richard Bell

John Bell

John Bell is the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A retired consumer packaged goods CEO and global strategy consultant to some of the world's most respected blue-chip organizations, his periodic musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in various journals including Fortune and Forbes. John has served as a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. He can be reached at his blog

  • Great points, John. Meaningful work, leadership, and relationships motivate – NOT money or technical skills, and least of all – MANAGEMENT. My great band director was Dave, a 25ish-year-YOUNG-man, whose passion for leading musicians inspired a rag-tag group of kids in Salem, Oregon to strive for greatness. He now leads a university music program. Thank you for the insight. ~ Jeff

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