from Pianoscapes – the website for Michael Jones
Art should imitate the forms of nature – Goethe
Welcome to my first blog from Pianoscapes on Leading Artfully. This blog explores the deep parallels between leadership practice and creative artistry.
From my own work in organizations and communities, it is my impression that beyond all techniques and advice, leadership now involves a fundamental shift from an industrial worldview to one that is more nature based and ecological. An ecological mindset is one in which our core purposes are aligned with the patterning and flow of the larger world of which we are an integral part. In other words, ecological change is an artistic process – an unfolding in which the present moment holds within itself the seed of potential for what will come next. Following the aliveness of the moment may serve as our best guide for leading in a time of rapid and complex change.
For example, one of the first forums where we brought in a piano to set the field for group learning was with the Foundation of Dialogue Programs which were being offered through the Kellogg funded MIT Dialogue Project in Cambridge Mass.
In the first program we experimented with bringing in a 9 ft concert grand piano. I had been a leadership educator for many years – and I had been a performing solo artist on stage for several years – but this was the first time I had brought the two together to explore how music might influence and enable a group’s capacity to learn.
Late the second afternoon of the program, the group was at an impasse. The effectiveness of the facilitation team had been challenged, the group was struggling to listen. Some were speaking quickly and cutting across each other in their impatience to be heard. Finally the group settled into a stony silence. No words of facilitation seemed adequate to bridge the divide.
Barbara, one of the facilitators turned to me and asked; “ Michael can you help us? Could you play something that expresses the feeling in the room – not a formal composition – but, you know, something that is coming spontaneously from what you are feeling here….
How to start? With so much tension in the room I wasn’t sure where to begin. I started with something simple – a repeating note that gave this tension a musical form. I was trusting that the tactile sensation of my fingers on the piano keys may suggest a direction that the music might go – I compose through my fingers so the sensation of touch is also a source of information. Soon I did feel an impulse in my fingers to explore – a thematic motif over a rhythmic pattern that expressed the feel of the emotional tension we were experiencing. This was something new. It intrigued me. It was unfamiliar and not something I would have found on my own. I remembered how my practice at the piano involved finding and trusting these moments of grace – moments when I was playing the piano – and it was also playing me. Letting go into the flow of the music in this way brought to mind the wise words of the German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke when he wrote that it is ‘not caution, but a wise blindness’ that carries us along.
And this was the shift that sometimes occurs in the music –the softening of concentration and the forgetting of oneself so that my full attention can be absorbed on the subtle felt sense of each moment, letting its aliveness guide me to the next form and, in so doing, allow the music finds its own life.
There is a vulnerability in surrendering to the flow of the music in the company of others – yet to include their presence opens new possibilities in the music – including being open to playing from the feeling in room and not just for oneself. My left hand reached for a minor chord deep in the bass – is that what was speaking to me just now? “Don’t second guess,” I said to myself – go with whatever comes. So I went with that – and then with what followed – and with what followed after that – – five minutes stretched to ten… and to fifteen … notes rising and falling, cascading into other notes, chords, dissonances spaces and tonalities, tensions and resolves… and finally… silence – a stillness that seemed to hold within it a feeling of indescribable completeness.
Music created out of the moment in this way has its own language – a precise and organic articulation of what is resonating in the room itself. This knowingness of music – of sensing the deep ecology of human feeling and experience challenges our dependence on logical analysis and empirical evidence as the only basis for knowing what we know.
While the intellect can point us towards this state of beingness- it is not necessarily designed to take us there. For that we need to look to artistry – music transcends the ego. It reaches into the deep self and expresses a human emotion that comes out of the felt experience where words cannot go. In our busy time-bound and rational world, music awakens us to a deeper mythic realm. It reconnects us to the ongoing flow of experience – of faith, revelation, beauty, mystery, harmony, stillness and the joyful experience of time out of time itself. Most important it contributes to creating a learning field where words take on a more conscious purpose in an environment that is spacious, slow, integrative and whole.
Our group, feeling more calm, thoughtful and centered now, reengaged in our common work together.
Leading in turbulent times is much like living at the moving edge of the tides of change. Survival requires extraordinary presence and adaptability. Leaders today must be willing, like a pianist, to connect with the emergent flow of their own aliveness for therein lies the intuition that guides them home.
As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes ‘ …emotions may well be the support system without which the edifice of reason cannot function properly and may even collapse’ (2) Our feeling life, not rationality, may be the pre-requisite for meshing with the complex tides of change.
“Could you play that again?” Barbara asked.
“I don’t think so” I said – artistry is to make visible what is hidden, there is so much more to be seen.
1. Barbara is Barbara Cecil, a close colleague with the MIT Dialogue Project and a master at understanding how art contributes to helping participants discover the living ground within themselves from which new meaning arises.
2. Demasio A 1994 Descartes’ Error and the Future of Human Life Scientific American (found in David W Orr’s The Nature of Design. Oxford 2002)