Andre Agassi, Boeing, and a vision for music education

In November of 2016, I travelled to New York City with several colleagues from Humber College to attend the annual WOBI (World of Business Ideas) conference at Lincoln Center.  During the course of this 2-day event, I learned many lessons about leadership, emotion and interpersonal relationships that have inspired my outlook on music education in surprising ways.

The Humber College WOBI faculty contingent. Iphone-ographer (yours truly) not pictured.

The WOBI annual conference, held at multiple locations around the world, serves as a platform for business leaders to share ideas, network and be inspired.  The theme of this year’s conference was “Be Beta”, and the list of speakers included tennis star Andre Agassi, global education activist Malala Yousafszai, former CEO of Ford Motor Company Alan Mulally, graffiti artist Eric Wahl and many others.  The event was organized in a series of 45-minute segments featuring each speaker, some of which included “text-in” Q&A sessions with the speaker and host.  The audience consisted of approximately 2000 people from businesses across North America, from major investment firms to manufacturing.  There were very few educators represented, as far as I could see.  Though I didn’t have occasion to meet many of the other attendees outside of the Humber group, I got a sense that many industries such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and other sales and service organizations were represented.  I naturally felt “out of my element” in such a group, but nevertheless I kept an open mind to the possibilities for my own learning as a musician and educator.

I was struck by how many of the presenters harnessed the emotional power of music and visual imagery in their presentations.  The charismatic Daymond John even brought his own DJ to provide a live soundtrack to his own life story, evoking nostalgic emotional responses. Graffiti artist Erik Wahl fused music and art by painting a series of 5-minute works set to music, live on stage.  Each piece set a particular emotional tone, and he used these paintings to viscerally illustrate the ideas of gratitude, fear and risk in the corporate environment.

On the topic of leadership, two of my favourite speakers from this conference were JB Straubel and Alan Mulally. Straubel, founder of Tesla, was a fascinating on-stage personality.  He seemed to be equal parts visionary and reluctant hero, in the way that he portrayed a kind of “aw shucks” humility at his company’s success.  I found myself reflecting on Tesla’s curious mix between altruist and capitalist perspectives.  The company’s rapid growth and popularity in recent years, coupled with their mission to rid the world of fossil fuel vehicles, provide an interesting contrast.

Mulally also seemed to possess a familiar, folksy charm, which was difficult for me to digest given the magnitude of his achievements in the aviation and automotive industries.  As one of the top executives at Boeing, where he worked for more than 30 years, he was on the design team of every commercial airline that the company manufactured.   He was then recruited to become the CEO of Ford in the early 2000s, during a major financial crisis within the company.  Under Mullaly’s leadership, Ford realigned its focus and regained its footing in the worldwide automotive market, to the point where they did not require a government bailout in 2008.  I was awestruck by his rather simplistic approach to leadership: having a clear vision, surrounding oneself with people who will align with it (and help them to communicate without fear of failure, ridicule or job loss), and tolerating nothing less.  It occurred to me that, if such a simple philosophy can help to restore one of the most famous brands in the world, I’d imagine it can be applied to virtually any area of leadership and inter-personal relationships, especially music.

Tennis great Andre Agassi, the final keynote speaker, was truly outstanding in a way that made me self-reflect on my own emotional journey as artist and teacher.   In contrast to many of the other speakers who came armed with PowerPoints, paint brushes and pizzazz, Agassi was simple, casual and brutally honest. (It should be noted that, though he may have been at this forum to plug his autobiography, unlike some of the other presenters I certainly didn’t feel as though I was being sold to in his case.)  He told the story of his upbringing, the analytical, data-driven nature of his seemingly domineering father, who calculated that he needed 10,000 balls a year to reach the #1 spot, his journey to the top of the tennis world, down to the bottom, and back up again. He focused on the ideas of perfectionism (ie. wanting to be the best in the world) and the hollowness of that idea.  He also spoke about committing his efforts to ideas bigger than himself, and bigger than his sport (in his case, philanthropy and the creation of charter schools).

Music is much like tennis.  Though the product is vastly different, the process and person are largely the same.  As music educators, we sometimes avoid discussions of emotion, perhaps because these are not quantitative measures, or because we’re concerned about vulnerability.   Though the analytical, repetitive acts of practice and self-reflection are a necessary and important part of the process, we must continually celebrate the joy of music making, and explore the emotional nature of humans as music makers.  In this way, music educators can truly lead.