Dissonant leadership

Dissonant leadership

10 min.
May 2018
Discovery Event

In our working lives we encounter complexity, ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty on a daily basis. Our natural response is to attempt to bring structure, order, comfort and clarity to these situations. This is particularly true in leadership positions when others are counting on us. But these reflexes could be doing us a disservice – it is through experiencing discomfort that our insights and learning become the deepest. By exploring the personal challenges of leadership in today’s dynamic business context, we can build our capacity to read and respond to discomfort and complexity.

Dissonance parallels in music and leadership

The challenges of leadership can be likened to music. An easy metaphor for our daily experiences, music – a communal, personal and visceral activity – elicits in us both comfort and discomfort. The discomfort we feel when listening to some music is called dissonance. Clear parallels can be observed between the evolution of dissonance in music and the development of our own capacity to learn through dissonance in our professional lives.

Consider how dissonance has been addressed throughout the ages in music. On a purely physical level, dissonance is created when pitch wavelengths are slightly slower or faster than others played at the same time. As opposed to wavelengths that travel at double or another multiple of the speed of another, those that don’t fit neatly together sound jarring. They leave us wanting more, needing a resolution and relief to the tension they create.

The risk taken by 19th century composer Richard Wagner illustrates this effect. After centuries of music that relied on harmonies and resonance, Wagner shook the arts world with his opera Tristan and Isolde. The revolutionary “Tristan Chord,” featured in the first two bars, caused a furore among music critics. Instead of creating tension and then providing relief with a resonant chord, Wagner instead let the audience sit in anticipation, and offered no resolution at the end of the musical phrase.


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