Really Seeing

Good leadership is all about being aware, not just of yourself, but your environment and those around you. If you do not detect the small things and pay attention to them, the situation can get away from you quickly.  You may miss great opportunities, or be surprised at a sudden turn of events that you never saw coming, even though all the signals were there.

In April 2007 a social science experiment was conducted by the Washington Post. You may recall the occasion when one of the world’s greatest violinists,  Joshua Bell, played in a subway station and no one paid any attention. Well actually almost nobody paid attention. Only 7 people paused briefly, and 27 gave money as they hurried by. Bell played six famous classical Bach pieces on a $3.5M Stradivarius violin and collected $32US. The week before, Bell had performed to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where average seats sold for $100US.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

So if a great musician plays a remarkable instrument, and performs brilliantly, but nobody hears… was he really any good? It reminds me of the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”  Bell recalls that one of the most painful things for him to endure in the subway was that people were ignoring him, and after he finished a piece there was silence. There was no applause, no acknowledgment. There was an awkward transition from one piece to the next with a void in between. Have you experienced this in your work environment? You complete an important project… everything goes as planned, great results are accomplished. Then nothing… and you move on to the next project.


Bell’s sequel event was arranged by the Washington Post and held in September of 2014. This time was different though as his appearance was announced and widely publicized.  It was considered a “triumph”. There were thousands of people in attendance, and there was a lot of recognition. Thunderous applause followed the first movement of Bach.  I don’t see this second experiment as being comparable to the original. It is much like a laugh track in a sitcom where you are told when it is appropriate to laugh or applaud… I’m not so sure I would consider this a triumph.

Be Open

So you might ask yourself… what is the point in all of this? I would suggest that we have lost the ability to listen and to really hear. Our lives are too busy and cluttered with minutiae to take note of something that may in fact be incredible. One might also conclude that we only pay attention when we are told that we are about to hear a great musical performance. Are we incapable of recognizing greatness unless it has a flashing neon sign? Are we too lazy to be open, alert, and fully present? Can we recognize a great contribution from a colleague without someone telling us “Fred is really good… you should watch what he does…”

Reduce Noise

My background from another life is in electronic communication systems. When a signal is transmitted, it must be stronger than the surrounding ambient noise to be received.  The problem these days is that the noise level is much higher, so a lot of good stuff just gets lost. Sadly we are often the architects of our own reality and create much of the drama, stress, busyness, and resulting noise around ourselves. We may be in roles that we don’t really enjoy so we go through the motions and do what we can to get by. We numb ourselves to the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. As leaders we need to seek out ways to lower the noise in our lives so we can really see… really hear… and make our own determination of what performances are great without first being told. We need to do what we are passionate about.  Our goal should be  to thrive, not just survive.  We need to be observant and recognize the great contributions of those around us.