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May-11-2010 13:35printcomments

Running in Circles - A Leaders Guide to Musical Chairs

For a leader there is no greater satisfaction than in knowing that when the music stops, you are seated in the right chair doing exactly what you were destined to do.

Luciano Pavarotti
Luciano Pavarotti

(CHARLESTON, S.C.) - In a Guidepost story, the world renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti shares a story about growing up in Italy. “When I was a boy, my father, a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song,” he relates. “He urged me to work very hard and develop my voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in my hometown of Modena, Italy, took me as a pupil. I also enrolled in a teachers college.

On graduating, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher or a singer?’ “Luciano, my father replied,” if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.” I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera.

And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment is the key. Choose one chair.”

While well- intentioned, leaders often find themselves running in circles like a game of musical chairs trying to wear hats that don’t fit. Instead of choosing the one chair from which to lead, a more pathological choice is made – the belief that being the jack- of all-trades and the master- of- none will work.

From the story of Pavarotti we learn leadership insights that will have your whole team singing in harmony. When a leader finds his voice, knows his role, and learns to trust the team he has assembled, it provides the freedom necessary to move forward. Here are three things a leader must do to stop the game of musical chairs.

The leader must find his voice. Pavarotti’s father told him to work hard and develop his voice. This is a must for any leader who strives to succeed. Finding your voice as a leader comes in understanding that while you may unmistakably be the best visionary in the world, it does not mean you will make the best PR person, accountant, or IT guy.

The test of leadership in finding your voice is affording the same opportunity to the capable and qualified people on your team to do the same. They will never perform at the maximum level of productivity if you are trying to sing their part. As Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.’ The key to success is being comfortable with your own voice and giving others room to find theirs.

The leader must say no to good ideas. The world now knows that for Pavarotti, the choice to be a singer was best for him and a blessing to the world. Would he have made a good teacher? With guidance from his father coupled with the work ethic instilled in him, surely he would have made a fine teacher.

The challenge of leadership is in learning to say no to good ideas and opportunities that come your way and instead be guided down the path that destiny has for you. By anyone’s standard, teaching is a noble profession. Yet for Pavarotti, the path of destiny was in lending his voice to the world, not just a single classroom.

In musical chairs, the closest seat available when the music stops is the safest place to be to avoid elimination. In leadership, the closest seat available may not be the one that is meant for you. When facing the music of life’s choices as a leader, it is important to not just listen with your ears, but with your heart. It is a matter of good faith more so than good choices. Learn when to say no.

The leader must choose one chair. Pavarotti said, “Whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key.” It took Pavarotti years of study and hard work to see his dreams come true.

What chair have you chosen? Your road to success as a leader is not found in trying to sit in two chairs or in singing someone else’s part. When you commit yourself, work hard, train and listen to your heart there is great reward in store for you.

For a leader there is no greater satisfaction than in knowing that when the music stops, you are seated in the right chair doing exactly what you were destined to do.

Doug Dickerson is the former editor of the Berkeley Independent newspaper in South Carolina. Doug’s writing has been recognized by the South Carolina Press Association, having won awards for enterprise reporting, series of articles, and for humor column writing.

Doug’s passion for communicating leadership principles and personal development is crystallized through his Management Moment column and leadership columns he writes. Read more of Doug’s columns on his blog at

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