A plug for Beethoven and company in times of stress …

I was always someone who recognized the critical value of diligently providing for personal solitude as an element of leadership effectiveness. (There is a pretty good book on this subject if you are unconvinced: Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin).

The coronavirus pandemic would seem to have made solitude the new norm. But this enforced solitude is no guarantee of productive solitude.

Yes, we find ourselves in isolation, but the very technology that is the basis for sustaining some semblance of business continuity during this period of social distancing and stay-at-home orders (in my experience, at least) is actually increasing the noise and distraction. (How many hours did you spend on Zoom today?)

This 24/7 connectivity coupled with the natural yearning for human engagement is making it harder to do precisely what is demanded of us now as leaders in the face of such massive external disruption and existential personal and professional jeopardy. In crisis, our responsibility as leaders demands that we make space and step back to ensure that we are not merely reacting in the moment. Reflection is necessary to making difficult decisions wisely, with analytical clarity, creativity, emotional balance and moral courage.  

Exercise, meditation, prayer, and music are the frequent escape routes to such deep reflection.  

Many people who don’t normally listen to “classical” music may already be listening to it more in these stressful times. Its meditative qualities are obvious even if you know nothing about its nature, historical context, style or structure (as endlessly fascinating and absorbing as those things are to some people, myself included). 

If this is unfamiliar territory for you, a few words of advice to help you find your way.

First and most important: don’t buy into the big lie: that you need to study, learn and become an expert before you can enjoy or benefit from this music.  That is a fallacy promoted by cultural elitists to feed their need to feel superior. Music (all music) speaks directly to the soul and speaks in something other than words. Its power and content are accessible to anyone who is open to it.

True, the words used to describe the different forms and elements of classical music can be a little intimidating, like the unfamiliar language used to describe the offerings on a menu when you try a new style of restaurant for the first time.  But it need not frighten you. 

A symphony is just a single work for orchestra. It is made up of separate movements (often, but not always, four in number). Movements are just like chapters in a book.  

A concerto is really just a symphony with a featured solo instrument. Again, it is generally made up of multiple movements (often, but not always three in number), organized like chapters in a book.

A sonata is a single work for a specific instrument (without orchestral accompaniment) consisting of multiple movements. (The same term is also used to describe the internal structure of some musical forms, but you need not bother yourself with that.)

Nothing to be afraid of there. And nothing you really needed to know before tapping into the restorative potential of the music.

But I point it out only to make you aware that there is a reason the composer combined those separate “tracks” into a multi-part work. You can choose to read a single chapter in a book and find it edifying. Same with a single movement from a symphony, concerto or sonata. But realize that you are sampling just an excerpt of something larger.  The composer didn’t just throw random pieces of music together in random order and call it a symphony, any more than an author threw together random chapters in random order and called it a book. I’ll come back to this, but sometimes just an excerpt is like small plates in a restaurant – tasty, but you are missing the satisfaction of a planned, full menu, where carefully chosen appetizer is paired with salad, followed by a main course, and topped with dessert.  

Next, you are faced with the (very often Italian) words used as titles for individual movements within a larger work.  These are merely descriptions of the musical content of that “chapter.” Words like adagio, allegro, scherzo, etc. do have specific meanings related to the technical nature of the music. (Grossly oversimplifying: adagio means played slowly, allegro means played fast, scherzo means light and playful, and so on.) But again, you don’t need to know why its tagged that way to respond to the music itself. I only point it out because, it might be helpful in identifying more music from the vast classical catalog that you would like. (To use yet another food analogy, you don’t need to know that a specific seasoning or ingredient is what makes you like a particular dish so much. But knowing you like that ingredient could help you find new dishes you will probably also like.)

So here are my suggestion:

  • Look at the late 18th through the 19th century (generally labelled the classical and romantic periods). There are exceptions, of course, but the music of these periods is characterized by its accessibility. It has heavily influenced the music written for many movie soundtracks and if you loved Game of Thrones or Star Wars or Schindler’s List or The Godfather much of it will have a familiar feel.
  • Some people find earlier music of the 17th and early 18th centuries (the baroque period) more abstract, and some of it can be austere. But don’t hesitate to sample it. There is music of deep profundity to be found here too, as well as music of exquisite exuberance, if you need a pick me up.  (Again, the determining factor is what you respond to, not what some “expert” suggests you “need” to appreciate.) 
  • Go ahead and start with the big names (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc.) and the popular hits so often packaged in those “100 Masterpiece” collections that used to be advertised on late night TV. There are reasons people who may have heard nothing else by Beethoven immediately recognize the opening of the fifth symphony. This is not a time for cultural snobbery – just because its popular doesn’t mean you lack musical refinement. It’s still great music.
  • Look for the adagios.  These aren’t the big, dramatic, heroic movements from longer works that you are most likely to have heard before. They are generally the gentlest, calmest and most soothing movement within multi-movement compositions.  Try, for example, the third movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony (the “Choral” symphony) or the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor” concerto). Both are adagios.
  • If you find something that speaks to you, look for more by the same composer, or movements that are similarly labeled, or works in the same musical format. For example, if you find solo piano speaks to you more than orchestral works, stick with piano in your search. If vocal music sends you shrieking for the door, skip opera and stick with the orchestral stuff. If the adagio from one Mozart piano concerto appealed to you, most of his other 22 concertos also have an adagio movement you could check out.

These are useful signposts, not absolutes. Just because Mahler (who falls outside any of the historical periods of music cited above) wrote incredibly moving adagios doesn’t mean you’ll respond equally to anything else he wrote. Maybe Bach leaves you cold. That’s OK, too. Personally, I would feel impoverished without either of them. But that’s just me. You’re exploring what works for you, not seeking a degree in musical appreciation.

  • Finally, if you want to engage in the music as something more than a pleasant background soundtrack, once you have found your way into a larger, multi-movement work that speaks to you, continue on into the next chapter. That is, keep listening to the next track – the movement or section that follows your excerpt.  In the case of both the Beethoven adagios cited above, these serene movements lead naturally, organically and convincingly into the next movements, which are of considerable vigor and dramatic effect.  

That is instructive too, because we can’t just retreat and remain in solitude: having regained our equilibrium, these spiritual sabbaticals need to feed energy, focus and clarity into action, just as, in Beethoven, the dreamy adagio sets up the stormy and triumphant finale. 

[And a note begging forbearance from any reader knowledgeable about music. Every categorical statement above can be picked apart. Music is immensely vaster and more complex than these generalizations suggest. There are 20th century compositions as accessible as anything from the classical or romantic periods. There are obscure composers whose music is as accessible as anything Beethoven or Mozart ever wrote. There are scherzos that are anything but light and playful and adagios that are positively nightmarish. These are matters for connoisseurs to delight in; they need not create a barrier to those new to this music.]

CEO effectiveness & volunteer boards

I was recently invited to share one piece of advice from what I have learned in my years as an association chief staff officer on effective partnership with volunteer leaders, for a book soon to be published by ASAE.  After giving  some thought to the matter, for me it came down to what JimiStock_puzzel Collins calls Level 5 leadership: “the paradoxical blend of personal humility and [fierce] professional will.” You need to be able to take your own ego-gratification out of the equation when assessing the association’s strategic needs, but also refuse to make allowances for any limitations that might be present on your board by compromising on the level of leadership their role demands from them. You need to be authentic in giving the board credit for association success and in truly owning any board failure as your own. And never, never, never, letting a setback cause you to doubt yourself or become tentative and risk averse. Take the hit, learn what you can from it, turn the page, and move on. In doing so, you become not only something of a safety net for the board, making it less risky for them to take bold action. You also model the behavior that will enable them to be effective in their own leadership roles.

Why these things matter

Get involvedChances are that if you are reading this, you consider yourself an association professional and you appreciate the tremendous good that associations do for society. You are probably also concerned about some of the issues impacting associations, and maybe even support advocacy by groups like ASAE to address them.

But do you ever involve the boards and membership of your own association in these matters?  Probably you consider these issues too much “inside association baseball” for that.

But wait a minute.  If your association’s ability to interact with the agency that regulates your members were curtailed, wouldn’t that have an impact on your association’s ability to meet your members’ needs? If the net dollars your association has to spend on association programs were reduced by taxation, wouldn’t that impact the level of service you deliver to your members?

Recognition of the positive impact that associations have upon society and what constitutes the appropriate level of taxation and regulation upon their activities matters to more than just association professionals.  They matter — or at least they should — to your association’s membership, too.

Read more in my latest Association TRENDS commentary, here.

Review Gate

Give the Metropolitan Opera credit. When its leadership screws up, they do it on a truly operatic scale.

The Met is a nonprofit, structured in a manner not unlike many associations. There is the parent organization, the opera company, that delivers the core value to its membership (audience).  And there is its educational foundation, the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The Guild engages in a number of activities in support of the parent, not the least of which is to publish the magazine with the widest circulation in the opera field, Opera News. A substantial part of each issue of the magazine is made up of reviews of opera productions from around the world.

On Monday, May 21st, in response to the sometimes negative reviews of the company’s own productions in the pages of the magazine, the Met announced that Opera News would stop reviewing the Met.  In an interview with the New York Times, Met general manager Peter Gelb indicated that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication “passing judgment” on the institution with its negative critiques of the house’s productions.

The reaction was immediate and predictable.  Some of the reaction was overwrought. Charges of censorship were made, which is hyperbole. The Met management, as the owner and publisher, has every right to decide what it will and will not publish in its own magazine. No one has a constitutional right to have what they want published in “their” association’s magazine.

But the censorship accusation also misses the point. The Met had every right to do what they did. It was just monumentally stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Forget whether you agree or disagree with the assessments of the artistic merits of the Met productions that appeared in the pages of Opera News: Does a gag order on any content independent of the management’s preferred narrative increase or decrease the credibility of the journal?

Does making the house organ nothing more than an outlet for sales hype and self-promotion make it more or less likely that the journal will actually be read?

And the irony of the Met’s action was that it was a huge overreaction, too. The criticism of Met productions in the pages of Opera News was far milder than the criticism carried elsewhere.

Transparency isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) an imposed obligation.  It is the organization’s best defense against mischaracterizations of its actions and intentions. Transparency does expose you to criticism. But it also creates an environment where the facts are allowed to speak for themselves and there is an opportunity for open discussion.  Both your supporters and your detractors can weigh in and the lurkers following but not participating in the debate can decide for themselves. There is no guarantee that judgment will be reasonable or fair, but it maximizes the potential that the verdict will be informed.

Some in the opera world have serious doubts about Gelb’s capabilities as an operatic producer, but he is an undisputed master of marketing and PR. Which makes this monumental act of hubris all the more surprising. How could he miss the atrocious optics created by the action?  Could there be a clearer way to send the message that the organization feels it knows better than its audience (membership) what is good for them?  And that it doesn’t care what its audience (membership) wants from an organization that exists to serve its needs and is dependent upon its support for that very existence?

To the Met’s credit, its response to this gaffe was equally swift and bold. Within less than 24 hours, the Met voided its ill-considered move. (Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall for that board meeting?) And they did so in a clear and unequivocal manner.


No attempt to rationalize or justify or downplay the mistake. They just fixed it.

Every association has to struggle with the balance between credibility and leveraging the advocacy potential of the communications outlets it controls (its journals, publications and website).

Every association would do well to go to school on the case study provided by the Met.

Bringing the next generation into governance

When I ask association leaders (both volunteers and staff professionals) what their biggest long-term governance challenge is, the most frequent answer I hear back is the challenge of bringing the next generation of leaders on board.

“Young people don’t volunteer the way we used to.”

“They don’t have the time to devote to volunteering that we did.”

“Their needs and expectations are different than ours were when we came up through the ranks.”.

Each of those statements is probably true enough, although every one of them would do better for some deeper inquiry. When discussing generational issues, oversimplifications and broad generalizations  appear to be the norm, and can do more damage than good.

But the underlying concern of current leaders about future leaders is real, serious and important:

“Who will come after us and ensure the association continues to fulfill its mission?”

And, “How can we engage the younger generation, particularly in the area of governance?”

Serious, selfless and leaderly intentions.  I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity.

But as I listen to the discussion that follows, there is one question that persistently occurs to me:  exactly who or what are we trying to reform?  

When current boards discuss this issue, do we actually focus on changing the governance system and culture to make them more likely to interest, engage, excite and be rewarding for the next generation of leaders?

More often, it seems to me, what actually happens is the established board, made up of more seasoned and experienced individuals,  is looking for ways to get the next generation to change, not the system.  They struggle to find ways to make the youngsters  more fully understand and appreciate the current governance system just the way it is.  In short, it’s all about trying to make the next generation leader more like we are ourselves, so that they will want to step into the leadership system and culture just as they are.

Are we trying to remake the next generation of leaders in our own image or are we trying to establish a governance model that will be sustainable and serve the membership into the future?  Are we willing to design a governance  model and culture to suit the needs and preferences of the next generation, even if the result is a system we would find uncomfortable ourselves?

Consensus is not a dirty word

At a GWSAE Speakers Series event a number of years ago, Margaret Thatcher described consensus as the opposite of leadership.  She used words to the effect that consensus is an abdication of leadership obligations; true leaders take you somewhere the group otherwise would never go.

Recently, on ASAE’s CEO network listserv, a rather energetic discussion on consensus also emerged.   One of that dialogue’s most forceful and articulate participants took an equally hardline against consensus, dismissing it as just a synonym for unanimity.  Of course it’s nice when a decision is unanimous, but how often does that happen? In the real world, the majority rules and once a decision is made it is the board’s duty to support the outcome and the staff’s duty to do their jobs and make it so.

Both Lady Thatcher and that association CEO were right, to a point.  The need to “build consensus” can be a too convenient excuse to avoid making hard but necessary decisions.  Or a tactic used by the minority to mire the association down in an endless process of unproductive delay.  Or the well-intentioned but nonetheless unrealistic and naïve effort to achieve an impossible unanimity.  Regardless of the cause, it can leave the association locked in inactivity.

But I felt the need to defend the concept of consensus, and I hope not just because “consensus-builder” is a personal leadership characteristic mentioned frequently in my performance reviews over the years!

Yes, consensus can be used as an excuse for not meeting the unpleasant duties of personal and organizational leadership, and yes it can become the perfect (but impossible) ideal that is the enemy of the good (but achievable) outcome and lead an organization into a paralysis of irrelevance.

But I have too often observed boards where, although every action is unanimous (or nearly unanimous), the absence of underlying consensus reveals an organization in a state of total dysfunction and locked in constant and unproductive conflict.

Conversely, I have viewed boards where the debate over every agenda item is vigorous (sometimes even heated), and the decisive votes are often close, but the underlying consensus on the governing values, principles and direction of the association is so strong that it results in a prevailing organizational and leadership culture that is robust, positive and healthy.

So my bottom line is that consensus is different from vote count.  Voting is just the raw application of numerical power.  Of course votes are binding, but ignore consensus at your peril.  And don’t make the mistake of assuming you have consensus just because you have the votes.

That would be like the politician who assumes and starts acting like the election results have given him or her a mandate for action (particularly for change) that goes much further than it actually does.  The minute they get to Congress and start “doing what the people sent me here to do,” the rug gets yanked out from underneath them.  That landslide vote in the last election does not make what awaits them at the end of their equally sudden fall any less shattering an experience.

The real world of politics (whether in government or associations) is a world where divisions will persist.  Differences that are often deep and irreconcilable.  They cannot be eliminated; they can only be bridged. The leader who understands the extent, and even more importantly, the limits of the existing consensus is in a position to take the association where it needs to go but otherwise would never get to, and equips him or her with the insight needed to take it there.

The leader who knows how to maximize or even expand the scope of consensus is in a position to take the association to new heights.  Consensus isn’t reductive.  It is the key to unlocking the organization’s full potential.