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Wherin the old and the new intersect

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my previous life as an opera singer, and trying to figure out how all that history integrates with the path I’m on now. For a while I’ve been feeling as if the “new” career is totally independent of the old one, and nothing that I learned in the music world applies to what I do now.

But really, that’s not true. I’ve been part of many different types of organizations. Musical theater productions, operas, conservatory, orchestras, agencies, start-ups, corporations, and now grad school. Each shared some characteristics with some of the others. What I find especially interesting about reflecting on some of those less corporate environments is this: in some ways, they were the most functional and effective teams I’ve ever worked on. Now don’t get me wrong. Performers, directors, conductors, the whole lot of them are notoriously narcissistic nutbags. There are very few exceptions. Impulse control, self-reflection, and other emotionally intelligent traits are not much in evidence. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and other misbehavior abounds. But somehow, maybe due to the nature of the endeavor, the show goes on. And it usually goes on alarmingly well. Everyone remembers their lines, makes their entrances, gets the lighting cues right, plays the right notes. When someone flubs, everyone helps to get the ball rolling again. The most assinine, self-centered conductor will help a singer out of a jam – mouthing the words or catching up if they rush. Sopranos who are snitty, petty competitors off the stage work beautifully together during a duet.

So what is the source of all this heroism? How do people who are generally less mature and self-realized somehow transcend the ethical and interpersonal quagmire that is corporate existence? Well, they don’t, exactly. Misconduct is pretty common, but the funny thing is it rarely jeopardizes the final product. I think that something about the nature of the organization pre-disposes it to function properly and well, despite all the machinations of the individuals.

Conversely, lots of corporations are filled with people with good intentions, much clearer ethical rules, and subject to far more public and legal scrutiny. And yet, huge ethical lapses are becoming more and more obvious. If you’ve heard me talk about this before, you know the saw. The structure of the publicly held corporation – the fact that shareholders are not ethically or legally responsible for the actions of the employees – seems to predispose it to violating established ethical and legal norms.

I think this provides a pretty good argument for the foundation of our thesis. The organization has it’s own personality, tendencies, and pre-dispositions that are a complicated blend of the collective culture, the values and goals of the founders and execs, and the market pressures. So much of the literature we’ve read for this program talks about personal responsibility. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Covey, Titchy, many of the others say that if you don’t change it yourself, quit your bitching. But there are much stronger forces at play, and while I’m all in favor of setting a good example, there’s another saying I tend to believe more: “Culture eats change for breakfast.” And I’d like to add to this to the mix: the personality of the organization far supersedes the personalities of the individuals. And the legalistic or even conventional structure of the organization has a huge effect on that personality. Perhaps even an insurmountable effect.

Another thing that occurs to me is that concept of heroism. To be heroic (or to fit the hero archetype) one has to have something at stake – risk of loss, and some kind of transformational process. So a lot of the literature on teams and heroism often have a foundation or at the least a lot of case studies on the military. But in the military, there’s a very immediate danger of death or dismemberment. So people have a lot to lose if they don’t work together effectively, and the consequences of poor leadership and poor teamwork are dire.

While performing is not life-threatening, it can feel that way. Anyone who’s ever had stage fright can attest that your body does not know the difference between that fear and a tiger running towards you. Your brain may say, “no reason to be afraid, just singing for some industry big shots.” but your body says, “Tiger!” So again, the stakes are high, immediate, and the consequences of screwing up are psychological death and dismemberment of not only yourself, but your peers (and probably your reputation and career).

In the corporate world, obviously some survival instinct also comes into play, but not with the immediacy of a more time-restricted scenario like a battle or a performance. Maybe that’s why dysfunction can creep in unnoticed, fester and grow, and then surprise the shit out of everyone when suddenly they realize that, oh, growth is at -30% and the CEO has been diverting money into his Swiss bank account. I also have a really hard time buying the CEO as Hero myth. No babies are being rescued from burning buildings, and the idea of a CEO making a major sacrifice for someone else (what with those compensation packages) is pretty laughable. So for me, that idea just does not resonate. Maybe we need to look at organizations through a different lens, and stop trying to find our heroes in those with positional power. Maybe the organization will be heroic when it re-defines itself into something more ethical, responsible, and connected to all the people that comprise it.

Just a thought.