Leadership lessons from a pop-up choir

Harry L. Davis and an experiential choir

How singing together creates better leaders

Leadership is a performance art. To understand it, you have to experience it, and to improve, you have to practice.

That is the philosophy at the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Always on the lookout to explore the parallels between art and the business world, the center gathered 40 students, faculty, and staff with little or no singing experience to form a Chicago Booth pop-up choir.

After three hours of rehearsal one Saturday afternoon, the one-time pop-up choir performed in front of a live audience and walked away with a new perspective on leadership. Watch video >>

Students singing

The choir was the brainchild of Harry L. Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at Chicago Booth, who decades ago laid the groundwork for Booth’s experiential learning curriculum. As head of the namesake center, Davis is deeply committed to experimentation and collaboration, especially with artists, to help students gain insights into how to lead.

“It struck me that singing in a choral setting might have a great deal of connections to people dealing with a lot of issues in business about leadership, followership, and listening,” said Davis. “Wouldn’t it be terrific to put together a workshop so that instead of just talking about it, we could experience it?”

Davis reached out to Mollie Stone, choral director and lecturer at the University of Chicago, and the two, along with Patty Cuyler of Village Harmony, created a one-time workshop for students to learn about leadership by singing together.

There were no auditions. Instead, since most of the students had no prior musical training, the pair invited several professional singers to serve as ringers. That was a lesson in itself, said Linda Ginzel, Clinical Professor of Managerial Psychology at Booth, who participated in the pop-up choir. “I like to sit next to someone who is better than me. They bring me up.”

The students learned three songs: a Corsican Kyrie, an American hymn, and a South African call-and-response song in Zulu. In between notes, they talked about how what they were experiencing could be applied to their business and personal lives, including how to listen to one another.

At the end of the class, the pop-up choir held a performance at the Gleacher Center’s Midway Club attended by students in Booth’s weekend MBA program.

“The major takeaway I had was about the importance of trust,” said recent Booth graduate Purva Joshi. “When you’re singing, you can’t be too involved in evaluating how the other people in the group are doing or it will throw off your rhythm. You have to do your part and trust that everyone else is doing their parts. I realized how beautiful it sounds when people trust each other.”

Here are four leadership lessons they learned:

Lesson No. 1: Learning leadership through followership

When singing in a choir, you have to learn when to lead and when to take a step back and listen. In the South African song Asimbonanga, the students learned through the call-and-response structure how to dynamically lead and follow at the same time.

The students discovered that the song was nothing like the traditional call from the pulpit and response from the congregation, but rather a cyclical movement of energy, said Stone. They were always leading and following at the same time, listening in the moment and responding to what their fellow singers were doing.

“The melody passed from one part to another and allowed for a certain amount of improvisation, so you could not just be in your silo doing your specialty,” said Davis. “I’m a tenor, but I couldn’t just care about my part. I had to care about the group and be fully present for them. And that’s a good metaphor for organizations.”

Every choir member was leading as much as following.

Lesson No. 2: Learning leadership through failure

Gather people together with limited singing experience, and it is inevitable that they are going to hit some sour notes. That is ok. In fact, that is the point.

“I spend a lot of time in teaching leadership getting people to experiment,” said Davis. “And people often say, ‘What happens if it doesn’t work out? What if it’s a failure? I say, that is often the best way to learn.”

Through choral singing, the students discovered that they have to keep singing even when they make a mistake, otherwise the song stops. They also experienced a sense of power when they used their voice in a completely new way.

“We are all afraid of failure,” said Stone. “Until you try all sorts of different approaches, you can’t succeed, because you have to know what not to do often times before you know what to do.”

Lesson No. 3: Learning leadership through respect and humility

There are often subtle and powerful differences that leaders overlook when working with other people from other cultures.

If leaders can let go of their predispositions and open themselves up to differences and appreciate them, they can better understand how to engage people from other cultures in ways that are productive.

There is magic in learning how to learn the music of other cultures, said Stone. “It takes the attention off of yourself, because you’re so busy paying attention to such intricate detail.”

Lesson No. 4. Learning leadership through vulnerability

Leadership training often touches on the need for leaders to be vulnerable. It is a frightening prospect for most leaders, said Davis.

Yet, when a leader practices vulnerability, it can embolden followers to respond in a more active way.

Singing in the pop-up choir, the students experienced first-hand how much they could learn when they allowed themselves the freedom to take risks. By singing three challenging songs as novices, the students had an opportunity to feel unsure of themselves and still make it through the performance by relying on one another.

“I realized that even when you’re in a leadership position there are times when you don’t feel completely confident,” said Booth student Julianna Suarez, “and you have to lean in and allow the team to give you the energy to move forward.”

Watch the documentary, Learning Leadership: Lessons from a Pop-Up Choir here. The video was directed by Jason & Blue for the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership.

--Sandra Jones with contributions from Robert Sharoff