An agnostic musing about leadership & talent

As I was tidying my office today, I fell into a book.

You know how it is. You open it and are seduced or abducted, suddenly lost to yourself, deep in the book.


While Jim Fisher’s The Thoughtful Leader: A Model of Integrative Leadership (2016) might be a book about approaches to being a boss in the business world from a professor at the Rotman School of Management, it’s very suggestive to me, a person straddling worlds. I may be a manager at the University of Toronto but I’m also a musician & scholar. I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels between different disciplines, convinced that they should be talking to one another, informing one another. For example what can psychology & psychotherapy teach the realms of business management or collaborative artistic disciplines?

I sometimes wonder how to understand someone like the Canadian Opera Company’s General Director Alexander Neef.

  • a business man in the arts world?
  • an artistic leader in the business world?

That headline could refer to me or to Fisher. In his introduction he says the following:

In fact, when I started my career, I would have said that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills. It was only in the teaching part of my life- interacting with students from around the world, younger and older, in all kinds of enterprises—that I came to find a more practical and useful definition and understanding of leadership. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that leadership is actually a teachable skill.

That is what I meant by agnostic. Yes maybe it’s the wrong word or sounds too harsh to apply to him. But I’m coming at this after a lifetime of hearing about gifted artists (had one in the family in fact), geniuses (I went to UTS after all), …born leaders.

There’s no question that some people show promise early, standing out from their peers. Once you heard him play you wouldn’t underestimate Mozart. I’m okay with the use of the word “talent” to identify someone who is so gifted as to show ability from the very beginning.

My problem with the word is when it becomes a short-cut or worse.

Suppose we seize on what Fisher was talking about, namely leadership as a teachable skill. I think his capsule summary of his earlier beliefs on the subject – that leaders are more likely to be born, not made, and that leadership was more about character than learnable skills—might be a reflection of a time when leadership was not well understood. In previous generations, when theories of management had not yet embraced a multi-disciplinary approach, especially in listening to psychologists, then of course the process was not yet understood.

What is a leader? a magician who can lead?  And so when it’s a mystery we place the good practitioner on a pedestal and call them “talented”.

In the book we encounter a paradigm shift: that one can learn how to be leader. Fisher’s model isn’t the only model out there although it’s a good one. But that’s what the discipline has become nowadays, as it studies & learns across multiple disciplines.

It’s very exciting.

I am inclined to think that the same sort of thing should be applied to the various disciplines in the arts. Yes some people start sooner & of course they gain confidence from their success. But one can learn how to act, dance, sing, toot, tint… you name it.

So I mean that I’m an agnostic as far as the word “talent” is concerned, as I think it’s unhelpful. I’ve seen performers give brilliant auditions, that sadly were the best thing that artist did on the whole project, as we looked back wondering: wtf?  I wonder, is that failure to progress a snapshot of a paradigm in need of revision: not unlike the one from the management world? It’s not enough to sound good at the beginning. One has to work, to collaborate.

While I love magic & mystery, a rehearsal process should not be so mysterious that we don’t know what we’re going to get.

No I don’t mean everyone can play as well as Stewart Goodyear or Yuja Wang, who are exceptional.

But I do think anyone can play the piano or sing or draw. The idea of talent (or more to the point, the idea that someone might be “untalented”) used to inhibit people, preventing them from going very far in their studies.  The old textbook ideas about leadership posited tall men with big voices, precluding more inclusive possibilities.

I hope that crippling inhibition will vanish. I am an agnostic about the importance of talent or the old-school type of leader. But I do believe in creativity & work.

And I do love to tidy my office.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, University life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s