Making Meaning

Our program in Seoul was cancelled this week, leaving us Fellows with an unexpected week off. Five of us ventured to Phuket, Thailand, together, then little by little each of us went separate ways. I bunked in Karon Beach for five nights, then spent a night on Phi Phi Island. I’m in the airport solo (enjoying the alone time, yet overwhelmed with the noise from so many delayed flights...!), waiting to head to Hong Kong. Four of us will meet up for dinner there Saturday evening before taking the high-speed train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China, on Sunday morning. We’ll all regroup Sunday in preparation for two three-day workshops in Guangzhou.

Amid the stunning scenery this week (pictures to come soon!), it’s given me time to reflect on the work that I’ve been doing this summer. I’ve been teaching “leadership communications” to students from advanced high schoolers to young executives in Seoul, Beijing, Malaysia, Guangzhou, and Sendai. While there have been striking differences among the multiple weeks of teaching, there have also been amazing similarities between all of the classes.

The more I’ve dug into this work throughout the summer, the meaning of teaching leadership communications has continued to evolve. As I find with music, I don’t fully understand a subject until I’m able to distill the concepts and teach it to someone else. I’ve drawn much of my inspiration in teaching communications from studying music. Yes, there are specific skills needed to master any instrument, just like there are specific techniques and actions that excellent communicators use for effective delivery of speeches. But a great musical performance, like a great speech, goes way beyond these specific skills. It’s the meaning between the notes, or the meaning behind the words, that makes a performance (or story) come alive. The older I get, the more I understand that our experiences, regardless of emotional attribution, truly shape who we are and what we each individually value. It’s through these experiences that our emotions and what we passionately believe shines through - in music and in words - which help us connect with one another. We tell stories of our challenges, our choices, and the resulting outcomes as a way to make meaning of our lives and connect with others. Through this sharing, we sometimes (likely often) become vulnerable, yet it’s through this honesty that we share our motivations and inspire others to take action. 

From this musically creative understanding through which I teach leadership communications, the students’ reception to these idea has taken many different forms. I wonder how much of the reception has to do with various cultural norms in each place where we’ve taught. But interestingly, the most notable challenge has been with the age difference between the classes to date. It’s been the older students that have been the most difficult to engage with this topic. The younger students are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and immediately connect with the new concepts and ideas. Most are in educational settings (high school or college), and have a natural predisposition to engage with learning. Last week with the executives, however, was my most challenging (yet equally rewarding!) week. As I stood in front of the class on the first day, I felt that my words were being totally dismissed. At least in my own mind, I read the initial reactions as “this will never work”, or “you’re asking me to do what?!”, or “been there, done that, this won’t work.” The initial engagement with the material was difficult. At one point, after the beginning of class when I was asking everyone to think of moments in their lives that stood out, one students raised his hand, questioning “but I don’t have stories. I’m not special. I’m like everyone else, and my life is just normal.” These students challenged me to rethink my teaching and my approach, specific to their own needs and perspectives. At the end, I didn’t change what I was teaching. While hesitant at first, the students came to reflect on their own experiences, using that as the point of departure for communications. And the student who felt he didn’t have any stories? His life was indeed unique, and his own personal story compelled the class to collectively move forward.

The most apparent similarity between all of the classes has been the end result. This work, as with so many of my colleagues who are also teaching different aspects of leadership, begins by asking each individual to truly know him/herself. What matters to you? Why does that matter? And how does that motivate you to take action? Knowing yourself is not an easy assignment. It’s something that (again) evolves over time, and it’s not work that anyone else can do. There are no wrong answers, yet there are also no blanket answers that are the same for everyone. Each person has to take responsibility to honestly answer questions, helping to construct a personal narrative that is uniquely individualistic. At the end of the workshop week, all students are encouraged to share his/her own story with the group. I’ve had nearly 100% participation. Better yet? Every single individual who has participated in class has shared a story that they have never told before. Every single narrative has been very personal, very meaningful, and absolutely impactful to the larger group. Knowing one’s self leads to more passionate communications. And passionately communicating leads to inspiring others. It’s through this inspiration that others take notice, build trust and respect, and ultimately are motivated to make change happen. Students experientially learn that leadership is not defined by a title or position, and leadership is not defined by talking. Instead, they learn that leadership is about listening, about understanding one another, and about inspiring others to care. This happens through the actions and words he/she makes each and every day.

In conclusion, I want to recall a story of a previous performance. In January of 2010, I traveled to Miami, Florida, to meet with the New World Symphony and U of Miami. Luckily enough, I heard a spectacular concert. The timing, however, is what made the concert truly outstanding. The Cleveland Orchestra was in town, and they had just concluded a strike from a contentious labor negotiation. This was also the week that the devastating earthquake hit Haiti. The Fellows from New World immediately wanted to give a free concert to raise funds to send to Haiti, and they persuasively convinced The Cleveland Orchestra to join them for a concert. 

Cleveland opened the concert, playing Beethoven’s Leonore Overture. It technically rivals the best ensembles in the world, yet (to me) lacked feeling and emotion. Given the meaning behind this benefit concert, this was surprising to me - I couldn’t figure out if it was because the musicians weren’t getting paid for this particular concert, or whether they were still upset from their strike. New World Symphony took the stage for the second piece, Barber’s Adagio for Strings. This piece bleeds emotion, and the Fellow’s passionate yet technically pristine performance brought nearly every audience member to tears. For the second half, the two orchestras performed side by side for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. In the beginning, I could distinctly discern the two separate ensembles, namely by the differences of passion and enthusiasm within their performance. Throughout each movement, the distinction became less and less, until finally the both ensembles merged as one somewhere in the third movement. It felt as if the Fellows drew our the emotion and fun in music-making, and the Cleveland members let go of their inhibitions (whatever they were that night) and joined along for the ride. The ending of the piece was stunning, and both ensembles visibly displayed tremendous gratitude for being able to share music for social good. 

What binds human relationships together is the meaning we create, narrate, and share within our lives. We each have stories, we each have motivations, and we each have the capacity to share our values to inspire others. Whether in the classroom, behind a podium, or on the concert stage, effectively communicating with others means to let go of fears, technical challenges, or the surface-level worries. It goes without saying that nothing can make up for the adequate study and preparation that builds an impressive technical foundation. But in the end, effectively communicating (or performing) equates to having the courage to go beyond the technically perfect notes and words, striving to instead share with one another the meaning and values that each one of us honestly cherishes.