Leadership Lessons From Roberta Flack

Leadership Lessons From Roberta Flack

By Peter Cook

It was an unexpected pleasure to be invited to interview Roberta Flack recently, still performing at 75 years of age with a beautiful singing voice, wit, charm and experience well beyond American Idol and X-Factor wannabes. I was delighted to learn some transferable lessons for innovation leaders from our conversation. Here’s the interview to start with:

Roberta on Personal Mastery

Commercial success came to Roberta rather later than most, having her first hit record when she was 33. She started her career teaching music in schools and privately in Washington D.C. Reflecting on this she said that she was literally thrown in at the deep end by being asked to stand in for the teachers in class at a moment’s notice. She also had to accompany aspiring opera singers on piano in a classy club in Georgetown where she got to meet John F Kennedy and other influential people who attended the club. It was Clint Eastwood who gave Flack her big break when he spotted “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and included it in his film “Play Misty For Me”. The amount of formal practice, teaching other protégés and being constantly thrown in at the deep end gave her a huge amount of deep experience and learning. This undoubtedly prepared her to reach her personal best. She said:

“As a musician, when you get an opportunity to learn something that you don’t know, and to really learn and play it and execute it well, is such a thrill. I learned to appreciate everything that came my way, even those songs that I knew I could not or would not sing.“

This relates to what business authors like Tom Peters, Malcolm Gladwell and Peter Senge mean when they talk about concepts such as the 10 000 hours effect and personal mastery. There is a direct parallel here for leaders in any field. Strategy is nothing without great execution. This relies on deep immersion in your specialism, something which great musicians and great leaders both understand.

Transferable Lesson : To achieve mastery, practice your art, make an artform out of your practice, learn to teach and teach others to learn.

Roberta on Transformation

Flack took on the unimaginable task of reinterpreting a selection of songs by The Beatles in 2012 – Let It Be Roberta, having lived nearby John Lennon many years before. Reinterpreting a canon of work of such magnificence presents the artist with an enormous challenge as to how faithful you remain to the original or whether to do something quite different with the songs, which are almost untouchable. Flack wisely chose to do something different with the material to stunning effect. Reflecting on the transformation, she said:

“I was a classically trained musician, taught by Hazel Harrison, a music teacher from Howard University who excelled in Bach and music of the Baroque period. She said to me : If you can hold on to your love for playing the piano and play Bach this way, rather than playing it like Chopin or Mozart, you will have accomplished something”

So, Flack learned to sight read on spec all the pieces that the opera singers wanted her to play and make the music come to life rather than just to read the notes on the paper. She was also stretched all the time by people who asked her to modify the pieces at a moment’s notice, changing keys, tempo and other aspects to suit the singer in question. This level of preparation provided her will the skill to get inside the heart of the musician and interpret pieces for the singers standing before her. Undoubtedly this contributed to her ability to transform The Beatles material whilst staying true to the heart of the music. She also mentioned the transformative power of George Harrison’s work in Bangladesh, which put the idea of music changing lives on the map long before Bob Geldof’s involvement in Live Aid.

Transferable Lesson : Act from your heart to find your soul. Connect your soul to your art

To finish, here’s a beautiful rendition of “Killing Me Softly”:


Image courtesy of www.pixabay.com

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