How music can help create more adaptable business leaders

In new Chicago Booth course, performance art becomes lens for nurturing effective leadership

One day earlier this year, a dozen or so Chicago Booth students logged in to their virtual classroom and presented their assigned homework. But they didn’t turn in the usual slide decks or Excel analyses. Instead, one by one, they shared their homemade instruments—whimsical improvisations that included a glass jar packed with pennies, a xylophone made from silverware and a set of wine glasses filled to play different pitches. 

The students were ready to shake, strum, jingle, drum and clap their way through the lesson, staring down their stage fright and prepared to get a little musical in their quests to become better leaders. It was showtime in the Leadership Studio course, one of three new leadership courses the Booth School of Business introduced in the 2019-2020 school year, and one of the most unique classroom experiences at a leading business school.

Writing a new tune

Stephen Kohler, MBA’02, a leadership coach and lifelong amateur musician who led the session that day in Spring Quarter, describes Leadership Studio as a new kind of course, in which students dig deep through rehearsals and hands-on lessons to discover their own leadership skills.

“It’s all through the lens of leadership as a performance art,” said Kohler. “This whole idea is that we as leaders can look at leadership not in the old, dry, textbook way, but as a creative, experiential activity. My focus, of course, was very much about how we can use music as a lens for growing ourselves in our teams and organizations as leaders.”

The course was the brainchild of Harry L. Davis, namesake of the Davis Center and the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management. In crafting it, he envisioned a course split into three interwoven tracks: classroom lectures, “rehearsal halls” incorporating the performing arts, and hands-on fieldwork. Co-teaching with adjunct leadership professor Nancy Tennant, Davis gathered an “ensemble” of guest teachers from the arts world who could encourage students to stretch outside their comfort zones.

Joining the course with Kohler were Janna Sobel, of the Second City Training Center and Chicago Dramatists, and Charlie Newell, Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director of the Court Theatre—all of whom led students through exercises meant to help them recognize, harness and deploy their leadership qualities. Leadership coaches Ed Miller, MBA’83, and Becki Lindley, MBA’97, provided one-on-one sessions with students throughout the quarter. The course will be offered again virtually this upcoming winter and spring.

“I’ve been using performance metaphors in my teaching for many years,” said Davis. “The idea for the Leadership Studio was to bring them all together into a single experience. I knew this would have to be a highly experiential class—there’s only so much you can learn conceptually before you just need to try it for yourself. That’s true for acting, dancing, and playing an instrument, as well as for being an effective leader.”

“Our whole concept of leadership is that we aim to bring some innovation around what leadership can look like in the classroom,” Kohler said. “Before the first quarter we offered it, Harry kept very humbly saying, ‘I don’t know if this might be a grand failure, but we’re going to try it and see what we learn.’ By the end of the quarter, what we learned is not only did the concept work, but it really engaged the students in a powerful way that then led to a lot of word of mouth, and students telling other students, ‘You gotta sign up!’”

Turn up the volume on listening

As a Booth alum, Kohler jumped at the chance to give back to his alma mater in a way that combines his two passions of music and executive coaching. At his own firm, Audira Labs, he teaches individuals and organizations to closely examine an often-overlooked concept: listening.

“Listening is one of the most crucial leadership development skills that I have found is too often lacking in successful leaders,” he said. “And, it’s also a gap in our society, in that many of us are not necessarily slowing down to really listen to one another.”

In his own coaching practice and in the classroom, Kohler guides people through what he frames as the three levels of listening. At Level 1, people are fully focused on themselves: distracted and prone to prejudgment. At Level 2, they begin to tune into others but are not as aware of their environment—they listen only in order to shoot back a response. It’s only at Level 3 that people are fully present, aware of not only themselves, but also others and the environment, approaching the exchange with openness and curiosity.

In Leadership Studio, Kohler teaches students to listen at Level 3 by having them pick up their own instruments and play—first as solo instrumentalists, then as duets, and finally as ensembles. “As we do this, we talk about the impact of each of those kinds of experiences and how we apply those in terms of leadership and listening lessons going forward,” Kohler explains. “At the end, we get very practical in talking about how we carry these lessons forward in terms of the roles that we have within our organizations.”

Kohler also frames leadership as a dynamic range of skills, much like how a composer can experiment with tempo, key, and volume to create wholly different songs. Teaching students to understand how and when to deploy their various leadership skills can help them become adaptable, dynamic leaders who can respond to a multitude of different scenarios.

As one student put it at the end of the course: “I became mindful of the tone, volume, and pitch of those around me, and used those as proxies to predict how they were feeling and accordingly adjusted my own to sync and match theirs, as necessary.”

Zooming ahead

Leadership Studio was first offered in Winter Quarter 2020 as an in-person experience, and it shifted online for the Spring Quarter as the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities everywhere to quickly change their teaching modalities.

The switch was a chance for the Leadership Studio team to practice what they preached, Kohler said: “We talk about the importance of being adaptable. But then we actually had to do that, right?” Early on, they adjusted to combat “Zoom fatigue” and encourage engagement: limiting classes to 75 minutes, and splitting the class into smaller sections so everyone could fit on screen at once. Instructors mixed technology tools such as breakout rooms and shared slides, along with pre-session work to create a lively virtual exchange. “People felt like they really could participate in a meaningful way,” Kohler said. “They felt engaged. They felt heard.”

The close-knit feel of the virtual modality surprised even Kohler. “I believe that an online virtual experience can be just as impactful, and in some ways more impactful, because it can be more intimate,” he said. “We took the total class of about 30 students and divided it in half. What we learned is there’s an advantage to some of the constraints, because everybody was really put a little bit more in the hot seat of really being engaged.”

Whether he’s in the physical or the virtual classroom, Kohler has treasured the chance to reconnect with students as an alum.

“Some of the highlights were just how creative students were,” he said. “What I loved to see was that so often people started with, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly. I’m not musical.’ And then what I actually saw people sign onto Zoom with just blew my mind. They put that limiting self-talk aside and just said, ‘Well, I’m going to have fun with this.’

“By the end of these experiences, they walked away saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew that I could possibly be creative. And now I feel really empowered that I can take some of these experiences into my workplace.’”

—This story was first published by the Booth School of Business.