04 Jun 2008
Whistle While You WorkTopics:
As part of its 100th anniversary (www.hbs.edu/centennial) party for faculty, staff, and students in April, HBS brought in Benjamin Zander (www.benjaminzander.com), a world-renowned conductor and teacher who heads the Boston Philharmonic and New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic orchestras. He also has a famous second career, that of motivational speaker. In that role, Zander has appeared several times at the World Economic Forum in Davos as well as at old-age homes, middle schools, Fortune 500 corporations, and now HBS. Music has lessons for business, organizations, and individuals, says Zander, and he puts on a high-energy, emotional one-man show to prove it.
Zander starts with a confession. “The conductor is the last bastion of totalitarianism in the world,” he says, “the one person whose authority never gets questioned. Every dictator aspires to be a conductor.” Zander himself bought into that, too, until one day he had a transformational insight. “The conductor’s power depends on his ability to make other people powerful. I started paying attention to how I was enabling my musicians to be the best performers they could.” Zander also said vision is more powerful than goals because it’s enlivening, “spirit-giving,” and all about shared energy and a sense of possibility. “Imagine,” he mused, “if Martin Luther King had said ‘I have a dream — I wonder if people will be up to it?’”
Dr. Michael Gold is a former academic and businessman who’s a jazz bassist. Like Zander, he makes presentations before corporate and business-school audiences that link music to business (www.jazz-impact.com). “Jazz musicians are entrepreneurs,” Gold says, adding that they are like managers in today’s business world “who are continually creating a new reality, improvising, and exchanging roles with others.”
Business borrows these metaphors and lingo from other group-oriented pursuits in order to better understand itself and improve its performance. The world of music provides business with a lot of the analogies and the sports world furnishes a lot of the catch phrases (e.g., “Full court press,” “Slam dunk,” “Going for the gold, “Hit a home run”…your favorite here). It’s a cooptation with a curious side. To me, music and sports convey transcendence: the mind and body at play, freed from the constraints and demands of work and daily life. They invite one to loosen the tie, let the hair down — things that business frowns upon. After the workweek ends on Friday, music is what you jack up on your car stereo as you head over to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox humble those guys in pinstripes. Music and sports are all about release from the workaday world. So wouldn’t trying to incorporate their dynamic ultimately subvert business and the workplace, rather than make them function better?
All this got me to thinking that in America, it often seems we’re doing our best to make work into play — and vice versa. (In fact, we’ve made industries out of the play of music and sports, themselves subsets of the gargantuan leisure-and-entertainment industry.) We’ve increasingly decided that our kids will absorb more at school if learning is presented as entertainment. As a corollary, for workers in the workplace to become more engaged, why shouldn’t work be made more fun and entertaining? Presumably Messrs. Zander and Gold would approve of that.
I’m an old-school guy on this. Let’s face it: For most people, no matter how you dress it up, work will always be work. There’s a reason why, at the postgame celebration at my favorite pub, after the Red Sox have destroyed the Evil Empire once again, you won’t hear jukebox music that celebrates work and jobs. In fact, it’s a slam dunk you’ll hear the opposite (e.g., “Sixteen Tons,” “Get a Job,” “Workin’ for the Man,” “Take This Job and Shove It”….your favorite here).
Herman Melville, who knew something about labor (as a seaman, customs inspector, and author of long, long masterpieces like Moby Dick) once said, “They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. The dignity is in leisure.” Isn’t he right? Leisure means you’re your own man or woman. Leisure is all about personal freedom, the choice to take work or to leave it. So old Herman nailed it. Or did he, like me, miss a memo somewhere along the line?