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Music and character

  • Mary Crossan
  • |
  • Oct 1, 2018
Music and character

“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.” – Plato

Leader character matters.

That’s a message Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership holds at its core. Research often focuses on the competence of a leader, but character plays a big role, too. It’s important to look at who a leader is, not just what they do.

How does one develop character?

The latest research from Professor Mary Crossan shows you can develop character by tapping into something many of us already use: Music.

Over the last year, Crossan, along with her daughter Corey Crossan, a PhD student at Western University, and Cassandra Ellis, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Ivey, has been conducting research to learn how music can affect one’s character. Their article “Using Music to Activate and Develop Leader Character” focuses on a music-based workshop with 80 MBA students. They have also run these workshops with an NHL team, an Ivey program with assistant deputy ministers, and many groups of executives and academics.

“Character is a set of virtuous behaviours, all of which are learned,” Crossan said. “With this research, we’re connecting things that haven’t been connected previously. Using music to activate character is something entirely new.”

The 11 character dimensions

Ivey’s Leadership Institute developed a framework of 11 character dimensions that describe an effective leader: courage, accountability, justice, temperance, integrity, humility, humanity, collaboration, drive, transcendence, and judgment.

Key points:

  • All 11 dimensions are important. If one has courage without the temperance to support it, for example, it causes recklessness.
  • To develop character is to develop strength across all dimensions.
  • The dimensions are interconnected and support one another.
  • Judgment, or what Aristotle called “practical wisdom,” plays a key role in activating the various dimensions of character as needed.

The power of music

Crossan and her colleagues use a variety of activities to develop character but she is particularly excited about music. “What we like about music is not only the strong science on which it is based, but most people tap into it already on a regular basis. It’s a resource that is available to everyone if we can become more mindful about how to use it to develop character. And as the quote from Plato reminds us, its very essence is powerful.”

In their article, the authors pose the question, “Health researchers have used music to improve physical performance. Why should we not explore how to effectively use music to improve on an individual’s character?”

Think of physical activity. If you’re at the gym working out, or warming up before playing a sport, you might listen to your favourite upbeat song. Music can be used to enhance exercise performance: prolong duration, improve mood, reduce exertion, etc.

Crossan and her co-authors demonstrate that music can enhance character in a similar way.

  • Music can activate emotions and memories associated with character
  • Understanding how a piece of music affects you exercises important behaviours associated with humility such as being self-aware, reflective, and curious
  • Listening to music resonates in a way that can inspire (transcendence), calm (temperance), foster resilience and determination (courage), and activate drive
  • Even the act of sharing music activates humanity and collaboration
  • Music can transcend cultural and language barriers, bringing people together

In the workshops, participants choose a song that activates one or more dimensions of character for them. In small groups, they share their music and discuss why it affects them and how they can use it to activate character.

“Surprisingly, it takes a lot of vulnerability – music can be really personal and people have this deep connection to it,” Crossan said. “It was fascinating watching the excitement and energy that came out when they shared their music.”

Crossan said there’s no doubt music has played an important role in her own life. She provides a personal example: “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

“When you encounter a challenging obstacle, and you can’t control the outcome, remember you can only do what you can do,” she said. “For me, the song elevates humility and a tremendous amount of temperance. There’s also transcendence, knowing there will be a brighter future.”

For Corey Crossan, there’s a playlist of songs she listens to every morning that activates at least eight different dimensions. Just by listening to it each day, the playlist helps her develop and exercise character.

The real-world application

“Character matters for individuals and organizations. It fosters sustained excellence and well-being. The next frontier is how to develop it,” Crossan said. “Having a playlist that activates on multiple dimensions really gives you this practical insight into our research. I would personally say music is an incredible resource.”

“Music has the ability to regulate our mood. Think about a song that you could use to personally activate the various dimensions of character, like ‘Chariots of Fire’ to activate drive. These songs are personal and reflect each of our life soundtracks, if you will,” Ellis said.

This practical insight is what Crossan says makes the research so important.

“People can step away and have this ‘a-ha’ moment. It’s a way to explore what character is,” she said. “Character isn’t this complex, theoretical model that you can’t understand. Anyone can use music as a way to explore what those behaviours are and how you can activate and exercise them.”

Crossan acknowledges this is only the beginning, and she looks forward to seeing where the research goes from here.

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