This much I know

I had a high school English teacher, universally adored, who had a habit of saying “I don’t know a lot, but this much I know”. Of course we made fun of him endlessly (as teens do), but we also knew that when he prefaced a statement with his favorite phrase, he was most often laying down some gem of truth. “There’s a certain beauty in heartbreak” is one that I remember – I don’t think any one of us understood that then, but in my middle age (his age when I was in his class), I now see the insightful truth in it.

I don’t know a lot. None of us do – our individual knowledge is laughingly infinitesimal in the face of all there is to be known. But as a keen observer of human nature, and a keener one of my own inner world, there are some small truths I’ve grasped, some gems to share. This much I know.

So, my story for today:

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, a musician in a major North America symphony. We were sharing news and gossip about friends and colleagues, and he was reminded of an incident that occurred a few years back. His orchestra was presenting a world premier of a work with cello soloist, a gnarly and complicated score. So gnarly and complicated, in fact, that in performance the conductor miscounted something and players became confused and a musical train wreck ensued. Instead of flailing forward, he stopped the orchestra and addressed the audience – something along the lines of “these are the kinds of things that can happen with difficult new work, it’s part of the excitement of live music” – and then went on with the performance. Gracious, to the point, and personable. If I were in the audience, I think I would have admired the candor and appreciated the challenges of the piece (and performance) even more.

If only they’d left it there. A few weeks later, in the midst of a rehearsal for a different complicated contemporary score, this conductor made mention of the arrested performance. What an interesting experience for all of us, they told the orchestra. You know, it was because **** ***** (the soloist) miscounted and got lost, and it was the only way I could save him. Thank goodness I stopped and got us all back on track.

The entire orchestra, who after all had witnessed the entire debacle firsthand, knew that it was, in fact, the conductor who had miscounted and become hopelessly disoriented. In an effort to pump up their image in the orchestra’s eyes, he threw the soloist under the bus. With that misrepresentation, they lost the respect of the orchestra.

Radical ownership is not a new concept. Essentially, it requires complete accountability for one’s decisions, actions and outcomes, without crediting or discrediting any external factors. It’s harder than it sounds. It’s much easier (or the path of least resistance, at least) to try to shift blame, especially if that external factor seems completely out of your control – “I’m late because the traffic was worse than usual because of the Taylor Swift concert” (yes I know that’s specific, but it’s an excuse I heard recently!). Radical ownership would have you acknowledge that yes, the traffic may have been particularly bad, but if you need to be somewhere at a given time, it’s your responsibility to know what may get in the way of doing just that, and to adjust your plans accordingly.

Radical ownership also means acknowledging one’s role in an outcome, even if by outward appearances it’s the result of someone else’s action – or inaction. I had a recent incident in which an administrative colleague was to have gone over my proposed concert repertoire, approve it and pass it on to the library by a certain date. When the deadline came and went and a slightly annoyed librarian reached out to me for the program, my first instinct was to say, well my administrative colleague should have taken care of that. Practicing radical ownership, however, would have me realize that since I hadn’t heard if the proposed repertoire was approved, I should have briefly checked in with my colleague to make sure we were on the same page, and therefore have made the deadline.

To be clear, it’s not about shifting blame onto yourself. Rather, it’s acknowledging the fact that you are a part of everything that you experience. Having this clear understanding about being a participant in life means that you have both the concomitant agency and responsibility. Radical ownership has you taking the responsibility of the role you play, and using it as information to create better systems and outcomes for the future. So, in the case of my administrative colleague, through acknowledging that I could have touched base with them before the deadline, I’m able to establish a plan of action that will benefit everyone in the long run.

In the case of the conductor I mentioned, it’s even more egregious; not only did they take no responsibility in what occurred (and, in fact, they conjured the narrative that they were the savior of the day), they hoisted blame upon the cello soloist – a radical disownership, as it were. The net effect was the loss of the respect of the orchestra.

And this much I know; the ability to be truly accountable is among one’s most important traits, particularly as a leader. This story was a reminder that by not taking ownership of outcomes, trust was eroded – and trust is by far the most important factor in creating meaningful relationships.

Pink and I have a lot of trust

2 thoughts on “This much I know

  1. Hello La Maestra,
    What a story. We have a proveb in French : “J’admire les gens, qui pour briller, n’éteignent pas les autres (I admire folks, who for shining, do not extinguish others – free translation)”. I’ve sent you an email to your professional email as a conductor. I had my ticket for April 15 but no phony excuse. I assume.


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