Every organization values TALENT. Yet, we see case after case of great talent falling short of expectations. The best examples are in the world of professional sport where fat payrolls for super stars fail to bring team championships. Obviously, there is more at play. The prerequisites for success such as hard work, motivation and teamwork are abundant. But, the most critical factor is LEADERSHIP.

I learned the talent-leadership lesson at a young age, growing up in a working-class district of Toronto. Back then, every public primary school fed into one large junior high school for grades 7 through 9. For me, there was a special feature about junior high beyond a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex and the lure of juvenile delinquency. One of the many 7th grade classes would have the opportunity to play a musical instrument. But there was a “catch”—no one qualified for that distinguished assembly of violins, violas, cellos and basses without TALENT.

To test our talent, board of education representatives visited every school and played a series of quick 3-note sequences to grade 6 students. Each student was asked to write down which of the three notes had the highest pitch and which one had the lowest. I happened to be one of only four successful candidates from my public school.

Under the guidance of a remarkable teacher, (her name was Miss Mathews), that class blossomed and became an outstanding orchestra of young people. We competed in several city-wide competitions—and we placed first, every single time.

The Difference between Hearing and Listening

Miss Mathews taught us the difference between hearing and listening. I’ll explain the concept this way: Hearing is the sum of the parts—one big melody. Listening is the ability to pick out each individual instrument within the symphony. The appreciation of music from listening enhances enjoyment. She inspired us to do that, and we were rewarded with the enjoyment she promised.

This young leader (I’m guessing she was in her early 20s at the time) went the extra mile, sacrificing her own time for after-school practices, and field trips for us to see, and listen to The Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In return for her patience and selfless nurturing, we gave Miss Mathews our very best. In the 8th grade, ditto the orchestra’s competition results—more first place trophies, ribbons, and accolades.

The Day the Music Died

Then Miss Mathews departed. Her replacement inherited the extraordinary talent that delivered all those first place finishes. But, there was another of those “catches”—the new music teacher was woefully weak in leadership. In a matter of weeks, he had lost our respect, and that orchestra was never to win again—not even close. Musically, Grade 9 turned into a painfully long and unproductive year.

For me, this lesson in leadership will last a lifetime. The greatness of an organization, whether a business, a sports team, or a social movement never happens without great leadership. TALENT without LEADERSHIP is about as good as spitting into a gale-force wind.

The kid in that picture? That’s me in 1958, two years before the music died.

About John R. Bell

John R. Bell is a retired consumer packaged goods CEO, a former global strategy consultant, and the author of Do Less Better. The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. A prolific blogger, John’s musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in several online journals including Fortune and Forbes.

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