Monday, August 11, 2014

Leadership and the Space Between the Notes

French composer Claude Debussy famously said that “music is the space between the notes”.  It’s the pause between musical phrases that causes a cessation of extraneous thought and fills us with anticipation for the next one.

What if we thought of our lives as musical compositions?  Would it be important to fill every moment with activity?  Or, should we focus on the space between the notes?

In our busy lives, we usually start our day diving into our email.  It’s tempting to spend a day hitting Reply to All.  It keeps us busy.  And, we’re supposed to be busy, aren’t we? 

Try this…

Shut down your email for a few hours.  Clear your desk of clutter.  Create some space between the notes. 


Think of the last thing you did that you truly enjoyed.  Did you create a work of art?  Cook a fabulous meal?  Build something in your workshop?  Develop a clear and thoughtful business strategy?  Did you carve out some time for family and friends and create a new lasting memory?

Whatever it was, it was likely the result of a focused effort, devoid of the clutter that often rules our lives. 

Daniel Levitin, director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, tells us that “the processing capacity of the human mind is limited”.  Writing in the New York Times, he describes the triumph of the human brain as resulting from a two-part attentional system that seesaws back and forth to develop and execute ideas.  The task-positive network comes to life when you are focused on getting something done.  Its counter, the task-negative network, daydreams.  In your absent-mindedness, your daydreams figure out how to solve problems while you’re doing something else – making a sandwich, filling your gas tank, shopping for food, etc. 

A third part of the system filters out the extraneous.  Dr. Levitin theorizes that it was developed to keep us alert to predators. He recommends that we filter out the extraneous by breaking our day into project periods, isolating email and social media from the times when we must focus to accomplish something important.

“Oh sure,” you might say.  “That sounds great but reality imposes a different order on us.”

NPR’s Dan Charnas has reported on how the methods of executive chefs affect their lives and the lives of those around them.  The system called “mise-en-place” is a way of organizing and executing a plan.  It “transforms the lives of its practitioners through focus and self-discipline”.

Mise-en-place recognizes that time is precious. Organizing according to its method creates space, focuses our attention and develops self-respect.  Its adherents are zealous, describing it as a “Zen-like thing”. 

“All my knives are clean. Clean cutting board.  Clear space to work.  Clear mind,” said one sous-chef.

LEADERSHIP requires a clear mind.  It requires that one slow down… pause… clarify… articulate… and communicate.

Can you articulate the desired direction of your team?  Can you tell them where you’re going, why you’re going there and how you’re going to get there?  Can you say it clearly?  Is the message consistent every time you say it?

Can you keep them focused?

Music without space between the notes is cacophonous. 

A life that is so busy that we have no time to think – to contemplate – is unenjoyable. 

An organization that jumps from crisis to crisis is ineffective. 

Our happiness derives from our experiences.  We can’t have great experiences without the space to do so.

It is incumbent upon LEADERS to create the space between the notes for our team, our colleagues…  our families.   Try it.  I promise you’ll love it.



  1. Sally Fletcher
    Harpist, Pianist, Organist/

    Thanks for the reminder to slow down and focus, John. The "space between notes," as Debussy said, is the difference between a great musician and someone who just plays all the notes correctly. I tell students to take an extra 1/2 second before starting a new phrase.
    "It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants." - Thoreau

  2. Richard Morris
    Genteel Member of the Idle Poor
    Top Contributor

    It's been my experience that when considering leadership there's a term that's applied to 'the space between the notes.' It's called 'listening.' If you don't work twice as much with your ears than you do with your mouth you either have a weak team or you're a micromanager.