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Principled leadership

by admin on November 30, 2010

I learned something this week.  I learned something big.  You know that feeling?  When you hear someone say something, read words somewhere, or see something happen and you know in that moment you’ve learned something that’s going to change you? 

In that moment it’s never something huge and complicated either.  It’s always something simple.  Almost obvious.  Something so easy to believe that you realize you kinda believed it all along, you just didn’t think it aloud quite that way.

This week I learned that to change people’s mindset on something, you must insert that notion consistently in everything around – so before people know it, they are used to seeing it, and think it already is that way.  Sure, you might make a big declarative statement about the idea you want to change in people’s minds to kick things off.  But that’s not enough.  Then, you must nudge people at every step until they’ve walked in your direction.

Sounds simple, right?

I mean, of COURSE you can’t change the world with one quick action. 

Of COURSE you need to thread it through many parts of our culture to make it so. 

It seems so obvious. 

But then WHY are we always trying to find that big thing that’s going to make a splash?  Why aren’t we looking for a million little things to accumulate the flood?

This week I went to a going away event for a woman named Deborah Merrill Sands.  She was the Dean of the Simmons School of Management – the only all women’s business school program in the world.  Until now.  She’s leaving Simmons to start a similar school on the West Coast at Mills College in Emeryville, California (near Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area).

A few years ago, Dean Merrill Sands added one word to the Simmons School of Management tagline.  It has always been “Empowering women for leadership” and she added the word “principled” before “leadership” – a slight change many people noticed, but only some discussed.  I guess I was one of the ones who didn’t discuss it, but who accepted it as party of my alma mater’s motto.  What did it matter anyway?  Who really thinks about their alma mater’s motto and whether or not it ever changes?  And it seemed like a pretty Simmonsy value.  So I just noted and didn’t think about it again.

But during her celebration, I realized, with great surprise, that her coining of the phrase “principled leadership” really did change my world.  In small ways, in great ways.  It was so subtle that I didn’t realize it.  But many of the decisions I’ve made in my career, and many I have encouraged others to make, have been based in the assumption that such thing as “principled leadership” exists and is a valuable thing.  The motto made it okay to care.  It gave me permission to keep a little ethical genie on my shoulder as I walk through my day to day business, who I always wanted to be there anyway.  And it made it clear, that principles are established not in the large decisions – but the small, every day ones. 

The notion of “principled leadership” shifts the bar on success.  We are always debating, especially in the music industry, what it means to “succeed” in today’s world.  Do you measure success in sales?  Fans?  Facebook friends?  Twitter followers?  Email subscribers?  Number of shows?  Songs?  Albums?  Fancy hats?

In “principled leadership” there is no success at the expense of the customers, the community, the environment, our culture.  As Temple Grandin said – what’s good for cows is good for business.

So what does that mean in the music industry?

Well, I’d say the record industry has provided many examples of what “principled leadership” is NOT.  But it has also many examples of principled leaders who have not achieved their full success potential.  That’s what I’d like to write about…

How to be a principled leader AND stay out of your own way.

Because it’s true – principles can slow you down.  Principles make you stay in business relationships that are not advantageous to you.  Principles can talk you into thinking a smaller level of success is good enough – because it feels more comfortable, and that way you are not faced with pushing the limits of what you think is right and wrong.

Let’s be honest – when you are succeeding at something, growing, “getting big,” or whatever you call it, ethical dilemmas crop up all the time.  When you are truly pushing yourself, your company, your team, and growing your business, that is when you are faced with the social impact of the work you do.

I remember the first time I negotiated a contract to work with an artist who was already established – she came up in the business when times were quite different from today, and I could tell in the course of our discussions that she had been taken advantage of by many different “music business creeps” in the course of her career.

Knowing this about her got me all caught up in my head trying to anticipate the ways in which her experiences may shape the way she navigates a business relationship with a “new era music manager.”  So after a litany of emails and phone calls to determine if we would be a fit to work together, she asked me one question.

“So, what you’re saying is you have principles?”

She followed it with a joke, something like, “What a rare thing.”

I knew that comment wasn’t coming from a place of negativity.  But I really couldn’t tell what the right answer was to the question.  And I could tell by her intonation that she did want me to respond.  Was she testing me?  Did she want me to admit that I have principles?  Or is she checking to see if I am going to say something like, “within reason, yes” or “when possible, yes” or “when no one’s looking, yes.”  I of course didn’t say any of those caveats.  I just said…

“Yes.”

After I said it, I thought how odd it is for someone to ask me that question and for me to even wonder if the right answer would be no.  What does that say about the music business?  And in that moment, it made me feel even more committed to being in this business.  Because in this major time of change in the music industry, we need principled leaders to drive that change.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Steve Callahan February 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Great post Michelle. I’m involved is organizational change movements and leadership can make the mistake of focusing on department level re-orgs where true change happens at a personal commitment level. Change for the good must start with a mindset shift that is practiced every day.

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