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A Brain-Based Musical Solution to Enhancing Leader Synchrony With Their Teams

In a recent blog on HBR, I explained how one could identify leaders by their capacity to synchronize their brains with followers within 23 seconds.  In another blog, I discussed how organizations could start to train their leaders to achieve this synchronization. Here, we will introduce another groundbreaking method for leader synchrony training that combines the art and science of leadership development.

“Forming a high performing percussion ensemble allows leaders and their teams to synchronize brain waves, create a reservoir of positive regard and empathy, and model relevant behaviors required for agile innovation.”

Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar, recognized the need for collaboration among scientists and artists in order to advance our knowledge and practice of leadership. In 1961, Bennis published his “revisionist theory of leadership” in which he articulated the need for leaders to progress from “macho” to “maestro.” Despite his recommendations, few experiential interventions have combined the art and science of leadership. In this blog, we describe how a targeted musical intervention accessible to anyone, including those with no prior musical training, can be used to promote growth-oriented mindsets for agile innovation. Forming a high performing percussion ensemble allows leaders and their teams to synchronize brain waves, create a reservoir of positive regard and empathy, and model relevant behaviors required for agile innovation.


Why music?

Numerous studies demonstrate that playing a musical instrument promotes brain plasticity (change)—an essential ability for agile innovation. In fact, musical training can improve memory, attention, processing speed, intelligence, and creativity. By combining essential elements of brain-based and music-based leadership programs, leaders can learn to change their brains using principles grounded in the art of leadership.


Program components:

The program components include: (1) The power of play; (2) Reframing failure as improvisation; (3) Enhancing self-connection; (4) Enhancing other-connection; (5) Creating a winning team. Each element offers a musical experience to develop and transfer brain-based skills to enhance leader synchrony.

The power of play:

Through a series of percussion exercises, leaders learn to play alone and together to develop skills transferable to their organizations. They also learn how play enhances maturation of the brain’s main thinking and innovation center—the frontal cortex—surprisingly helping to increase focus and prevent distraction and inattention.

Practical application: When focus is lacking on their teams, leaders will remember to institute forms of play to help re-engage team members, rather than simply asking them to hunker down.


From failure to improvisation:

An essential skill for agile innovation involves failing and recovering quickly.  By gradually increasing the difficulty of percussion exercises, participants practice this skill. They learn to recognize failure as feedback as opposed to doom, and as an opportunity to seek alternate paths. By learning how the brain responds to success and failure as it occurs, participants can learn how to change brain blood flow in the brain’s anxiety and conflict centers to increase activation of the frontal cortex.

Practical application: In their organizations, leaders can learn how to change the culture around success and failure, by planning for forward momentum after failing and not just talking about it.

Enhanced self-connection:

During a musical experience, participants experiment with and identify two anchors for self-connection that they can use before or during any meeting (e.g. taking a deep breath). Managing one’s self is regarded as one of the most vital aspects of leadership and neuroscience can explain why. Musical improvisation exercises help participants learn to identify key self-defining features, setting the stage for thinking about business improvisation and product innovation. Studies show that these musical skills are transferable across other leadership domains.

Practical application: When anxious, participants will be reminded that the self-anchoring can reduce brain-based anxiety and increase agility.


Enhanced self-other connection:

Participants learn how to listen to the self and other while playing together to enhance team dynamics. By learning how to focus and “unfocus”, leaders can learn how to enhance self-other connection by activating the relevant brain networks.  They also understand how the biology of “self” and “other” connection overlap.

Practical application: They will learn to incorporate “unfocus” techniques such as doodling and daydreaming into their days.


Creating a winning team:

Using all of the above skills, this segment can help a leader improve individual resilience through team interactions.

Practical application: From studies on resilient and non-resilient musical teams, participants who learn principles of functioning in ensembles can learn how to build more resilient and cohesive teams. They learning will transfer to their in-house teams.

Although learning is typically restricted to the domain of business-based learning, increasing evidence shows that cross-domain learning can be effective and advantageous to the leader’s brain.  Communication skills and more subtle levels of leadership development can be learned through music-based exercises that enhance leader synchrony with themselves and their teams.

After all, music is an apt metaphor for conducting one’s life, synchronizing with others, and better tolerating alternating periods of harmony and dissonance.  When this dynamic metaphor is joined with an immersive learning experience of actually playing music together, the combination allows any leader and their teams to synchronize their brains, build rapport, and simulate what high performance feels like.


Srini PillaySrini Pillay, M.D. is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and award-winning author of numerous books, including Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, as well as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He is also Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.


Gary MuszynskiGary Muszynski is an organizational development consultant influenced by neurological research and how it can be applied to learning, collaboration and creativity. He is also the founder of Orchestrating Excellence, a global team building and leadership development firm that leverages the power of play for workplace change, employee engagement and innovation. Gary works with companies such as Pixar, Genentech, Kaiser, Electronic Arts, Bank of America, McKesson, HopeLab, and Xerox PARC, and has presented immersive learning programs and interactive keynotes for Fast Company, Apple University, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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