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Leaders Display (Creative) Grit

Effective leadership requires both determination and flexibility.

Key points

  • Leaders use creativity and compromise to deter opposition before it gets organized.
  • Good leaders line up their allies in advance.
  • Change should never seem to be threatening—just a new perspective on staying afloat.
Sanikidze, Tamaz (1985), Art Museum of Georgia/PICRYL
Young man playing the saaz
Source: Sanikidze, Tamaz (1985), Art Museum of Georgia/PICRYL

Elana came to this country when she was three, and in many ways she was a typical immigrant. She wanted to fit in but still felt the tug of her native culture. Her parents had fled Iran when the mullahs toppled the Shah. They brought the old traditions with them, and Elana bounced between learning English and singing folk songs in Farsi late at night with the family.

She didn’t feel conflicted, exactly, but more like two separate people. As a young woman, she wondered whether her public American persona could accommodate her cultural inheritance. “You know,” she told me, “I liked being complicated. It just meant that I could do more.”

The question was what to do. Her parents, who had fled along with other Jews, had become established in a Persian enclave on Long Island. But while Elana wanted to maintain close ties with people she had known and loved, she also wanted to break out. “It was like I didn’t want to be a clone,” she said.

But then she got practical. She was a talented musician and thought she was destined to perform. She studied at Juilliard. In her 20s, it seemed that music was her ticket out. The problem was that she didn’t really want out, at least not entirely. “I wanted to remain close to the community, and I loved my heritage. It was part of me.”

I entered the picture about five years ago. Naturally, we spoke about music and its place in her life. Up until then, music had been what mathematicians call a trap-door problem—easy to pass through in one direction while hard to reverse your steps even slightly. In effect, she could play the classics because she was classically trained, but then she’d be a classicist; the door would be pretty well shut on creating another cultural identity.

We tried to formulate a strategy, and here is where Elana’s determination—and, ultimately, leadership—started to emerge. For years, she had composed music that fused Persian melodies and techniques with their European (aka classical) counterparts. So, I posed a question: Could what served as fun for her be of interest to other people?

Elana determined to find out. Her idea was to engage the Persian community with her music, becoming perhaps a cultural avatar. She approached the leader of a group that promoted Persian interests on Long Island. Would they go for her? She had a pitch: No tradition can survive without acknowledging its new environment.

The guy she spoke with was friendly but skeptical. He wondered why she had not just pursued her classical career. When she tried to explain, he wondered whether her “new music” was not just a vanity project.

But Elana pushed back. She had made a few tapes and offered to play them for him—provided that a few younger members of the group were present. Elana was lining up allies even before they even knew they would be allies.

So, when she finally got to play her tapes, the reaction was euphoric. The older members had tears in their eyes. The younger ones were singing along and clapping—and demanding that Elana receive a live audition. They arranged to hold it at one of their homes.

Elana came prepared. She gave a talk, noting that she had immersed herself in Persian music and wanted to preserve it. “My objective,” she told them, “is to provide the cultural wherewithal for future generations.” Translation: She hoped to lead a syncretic movement, combining Persian classical music with contemporary idioms, so that young people could welcome tradition into their lives. She presented herself as nonthreatening.

Part of being determined is to head off opposition before it gets organized. She knew there were purists who would never condone tampering with tradition. But might they understand that preserving traditions in amber risked losing them altogether? “I was determined,” she told me, “to make them realize that the world was happening all around them, whether they cared to acknowledge it or not.”

The live audition came off brilliantly. A majority of members decided that the group would sponsor quarterly concerts at a local performance venue. Elana would be paid her usual fee. When the group’s leader got up to speak, he observed that he had come to appreciate Elana after having initially been skeptical. “What I liked,” he said, “was that you could still hear our music. It’s there, just updated.”

After her first performance, Elana told me, “I need to start a chamber group.” It would go on tour, and popularize what she now called Persian fusion.

Elana had found her calling. She would preserve tradition by running it through a kaleidoscope; it would continue to change but still be recognizable. As to the practicalities of starting—that is, leading—a chamber group, she knew the obstacles. She would have to find an orchestrator and train the musicians. It would be hard work and a lengthy process.

But she was determined to make her groupmates determined.

As of now, she is holding auditions. She spends the rest of her time developing people’s ear for Persian musicality, so that they’ll be able to riff on it. “I don’t want people just playing notes,” she said. “I want them to think in the idiom. I’m determined to make this a cohesive group.”

So, Elana turned assimilation back on itself. She accepted it, but on her terms. She now assimilates Persian and Western culture. She anticipates obstacles, and deals with them. Look at what she has done so far:

  • She took one step at a time, consolidating her position before moving to the next, e.g., she did not start her own group until she knew that she would have an audience.
  • She found allies within her target constituency and used them effectively—pushing against cultural norms but with credible back-up.
  • She made cogent arguments that convinced people that change was the only way to conserve tradition. In effect, she supported the prevailing position even as she challenged it (and she struck the right balance).

Elena’s story represents a type of cultural adaptation. She understands her constituency and operates accordingly (incrementally, inoffensively, with a message that appeals to the constituency’s desire for self-preservation). To offer change is not inconsistent with presenting oneself as supporting continuity. It requires maintaining a fine balance.

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