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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Coffee on the GO with Miha Pogačnik

The renowned classical violinist shows business leaders how art and leadership are intertwined.
Coffee on the GO with Miha Pogačnik

Leadership is often described as an art because it lacks the rigor and replicability of a science. But leadership and art actually have a lot in common. That’s the message of Miha Pogačnik, a classical musician and entrepreneur who traded concert hall performances for intense sessions he conducts around the world in which he guides business leaders through the deconstruction and evaluation of great works of classical music. As he takes the leaders inside the piece of music, examining how it is constructed and why it works, he encourages them to draw comparisons to the challenges they face in their everyday roles and their approaches to viewing and solving their business challenges.

Pogačnik, who will be among the featured presenters at the upcoming conference Leadership & Management Forum Europe 2012, spoke with GO about his one-of-a-kind sessions, the universal language of music, and how the terminology of art is prevalent in business.

GO: How did you come to move from your profession as a classical violinist to the work you’re now doing with leaders?

Pogačnik: I realized that the world had changed so much in the late 20th century from the times of the great masters. It was like the world had become like a big factory of musicians, so I stepped out of it. I created a movement where I invited my audiences to travel with me to different areas of the world, as far away as Tibet and across Siberia and Mongolia and Russia.

Through my experimenting, I began to understand that there’s so much art can offer in terms of inspiring human beings when it comes to being a leader. And I saw that the leaders on the top floors of corporations and the leading entrepreneurs needed to discover or rediscover artistic principles in order to see their businesses, their leadership abilities, and their challenges in a different way.

GO: Describe what happens in your sessions.

Pogačnik: I have the participants sit among the players of the symphony orchestra and then I take a great violin concerto, Beethoven or Brahms for instance, and I direct the participants through the development of the masterpiece and the problems the composer had to solve. I engage them in conversation and put them in small groups after they’ve gone through this experience. I seek out their observations and uncover their new ideas.

Because I take people completely into a field they are unfamiliar with, they feel very insecure at first, but when we go deep into the music, suddenly they discover that the challenges and solutions that contributed to the creation of the masterpiece, and the way to interpret those processes, have a lot to do with the challenges they are encountering every day, such as how to work together, how to execute strategy, and so forth.

That’s the fun part of what I do. You introduce people to the issues and potential solutions that are present in a piece of music, then you leave it up to them to be inspired and determine what they should take away and use. As a performer, it’s always surprising to see the connections they make when you’re leaving it up to them and not telling them what to do.

GO: What is the connection between music and leadership?

Pogačnik: An organization is like a great symphony in many ways. When you look at the orchestra it’s so obvious that you have a body of 60, 70, 80 people and they each must be very good in their own right.

But when they play together they share something quite different. In an organization, egos play a big role, but in classical music as soon as the musicians in the orchestra start playing a great masterpiece, egos drop away and don’t disturb the whole process anymore.

GO: Do audiences in different parts of the world react differently to what you are doing?

Pogačnik: I think great classical European music has the potential to touch the human within the human. I was doing a session with a group of students from Africa who did not have many opportunities to come into contact with European classical music. So I did it my way and after five minutes they were saying, “How is it possible we don’t know this music? If we heard it on the radio we would immediately shut it off, but the way you present it, it makes so much sense. We want to know more.” In other words, the framework in which you do something matters. If you can reach across the barriers that are erected between cultures, locations, and all that, and immerse people in experiencing a masterpiece, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. The reaction will be the same.

GO: Is a leader a performer or does a leader need to be more of an engaged and attuned listener?

Pogačnik: Both, of course. But performance is only the finer touch. You see, a leader has to have the capacity to slip into and understand another person’s role.

It’s very difficult to lead from the periphery. Teamwork comes up so often in my sessions because teamwork is on everybody’s mind and you cannot really be a team unless you work together. When a leader pushes the rest of the group and brainwashes them into action and gets them smiling and saying yes, that’s not the same as having a team. A team is about people wanting to work together and that’s something you can really learn by listening to a string quartet. You have four individuals who must work together in a tight and sometimes turbulent relationship, but the music they make together is so glorious because everybody is also an individual.

GO: It seems that centuries ago we used to be better at integrating art with our everyday lives and our business. Does it feel as if we’re starting to move back in that direction?

Pogačnik: You know, so much of the language used in business comes from art. In business they talk about performance all the time; they talk about creativity, orchestration, conducting, and so forth.

It’s like the business world desperately wants to have some association with the world of art. Everybody talks about performance, but they never talk to professional performers, like me, to learn what it’s really about. For example, it’s very interesting that excellence is a word that comes up so often in business. But for us musicians, excellence is nothing. Genius is what matters in art, not excellence. Excellence is just a starting point.

Miha Pogačnik is one of the keynote speakers at Leadership & Management Forum 2012. To learn more about the event, e-mail

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