CEOs, Musicians, and Students: Using Skills to Find Success

By Kate MacKenzie

It is pretty common to be told that learning to read and play music helps to enhance academic performance, but have you ever stopped to think why? Of course there are some of the more obvious reasons such as reading music fluently has similar benefits to learning another language, and of course there is also fine motor skill development that is a major component in early education. But as each year goes by, I discover more and more ways that my students are benefiting from the skills they are learning in music. In 2017, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart,” in which the authors explain their findings from a 10-year study they embarked on in attempt to identify the common traits of successful CEOs. While reading through this study, I was struck by the strong parallels to successful musicians as well as successful students. The point of this blog is to shed light on how these traits are learned early on by music students, and how they can use these same traits to succeed in any career/educational path. Please be sure to to check-out the original article for yourself as well!

1. Deciding with speed and conviction.

It may be little known, but musicians are generally fantastic problem solvers. Countless times we have each been in the position where we must say, “the show must go on.” During these moments, a solution must be found and it must be found quickly. This is where we as musicians are able to use our creative background and our ability to work under pressure to save to the show. From the article, “Our analysis suggests that while every CEO makes mistakes, most of them are not lethal.” This is especially true with musicians, as it is common to have to make split-decisions during the middle of a performance. Reeds crack, instruments malfunction, and tempos get torn, and it is part of the thrill of live music to see how the musicians can recover. In these situations, the musicians are faced with several split-decisions, and in almost every situation, it is better to make any decision, even a bad one, over not making a decision all. Students are then faced with similar obstacles in school (exams, presentations, ect.), and their musical background can help them to recover, overcome and succeed.

2. Engaging for impact.

“CEOs excel at bringing others along plan and execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies.” During this time when many orchestras, large and small, are folding throughout the country, musicians are forced to find and create new performance opportunities. Without a doubt, this strategy requires marketing skills. The musician must sell other musicians, collaborators, investors, and audience members on his/her musical skills and ideas. For musicians, CEOs, and even students, it’s about having a vision, executing that vision, and overcoming all obstacles.

3. Adapting proactively.

“Adaptable CEOs also recognize that setbacks are an integral part of changing course and treat their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.” From my perspective, this is linked to the first trait, deciding with speed and conviction, and further highlights a musician’s excellent problem solving abilities. As musicians, we generally learn early on the importance of being flexible. Doing any sort of collaboration with another musician, whether it be a duet or a large ensemble, students learn very quickly the necessity of adapting. As teachers, we try to help them be proactive in anticipating and resolving issues while allowing them to have opportunities to learn and grow. Flexibility helps with making decisions and setting achievable goals.

4. Delivering reliability.

From the hours spent practicing for lessons, music students know the importance of being able to produce consistent results. It is also a concept that can easily be applied to just about any other goal or task. Reliability plays an important role in performance in many ways because of the amount of trust that it requires. Once a performer has lost the trust of concert organizers, audiences, and/or collaborators, it becomes extremely difficult for the performer to actually perform! This is a valuable lesson, as it can be true in many situations outside of music as well. The authors stressed this point in the article: “Mundane as it may sound, the ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors.”

Most articles detailing the importance of taking music lessons discuss the various cognitive benefits. Hopefully this post was able to shed light on the skills learned in those lessons, and how they are directly linked to success outside of music as well.

Source Material: Lytkina Botelho, Elena, et al. “4 Things That Set Successful CEOs Apart.” Harvard Business Review, 18 July 2017,