Most people across the world enjoy listening, performing, composing, and dancing to music. In much of that music there is a low-frequency component call the bass. This part of the sound is the literal base for all the other sounds that help us understand it as music. The bass provides the connection between the rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic components of a musical piece. People often describe the bass as something they feel rather than hear. Our ears can only hear frequencies as low as 20 hertz (Hz), the lowest key on the piano is just above that at 27.5 Hz. When that note is played, it might not sound like much more than a thud, but when all the higher sounds are added its importance becomes clearer.
In a study by Michael Hove et. al., participants were better able to tap along with low frequency sounds compared to higher ones. That is to say, the participants were more accurate in synchronizing their finger taps to bass notes. This ability is traced to the cochlea of the inner ear, which is very early in the auditory pathway to process sound. It is a shared common trait among all people across the world. Higher frequency sounds are processed once they enter the brain, so we are better able to determine the pitch and relationships to other sounds. So how does this relate to being a leader?
Modern leaders both in and outside the military empower the people in the organization. Gone are the days of the authoritarian CEO or commander who demands respect and obedience through fear. The work may still get done, but the long-term costs of stress, burnout, and lack of job satisfaction, ultimately result in poorer organizational performance. Empowering people is about serving their needs through the creation of a framework that takes into account all the variety of skills and cultural backgrounds present in a team. This idea of the leader serving the needs of their team is called Servant Leadership, and it has a decades-long history.
According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership– “Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” The key aspects of this philosophy are sharing power, putting the needs of others first, and developing people. The servant leader is at the bottom of an upside-down pyramid, where the workers/followers are at the top.
In this upside-down pyramid, the workers are all the melodies and hooks that our brain spends the most time processing and remembering. The middle of the pyramid contains all the supporting elements such as the harmony and sound effects which enhance the music. Finally, at the bottom is the bass, which is processed the fastest, and almost unconsciously. It is foundational to the music’s structure and its enjoyment, but we don’t spend much time thinking about it. Unless you are a bass player you probably don’t really notice the bass in a song, but your body responds to it in a subconscious way.
Servant leaders are bass players. They share their rhythmic role with drummers and integrate with the other parts of the song. Leaders can empower their people to make decisions, without going through multiple levels of approval. In the military it is often difficult to share leadership. The positional and rank-based structure always leaves the final accountability within the commander’s hands. However, by letting others make decisions while assuming the risk for those decisions, commanders remove the ‘fear of failure’ mindset. This allows the members of the organization to share in its decision-making, building trust and confidence along the way.
They put the needs of the song before their own, even if that means choosing not to play. The song is the organization and its people, servant leaders sacrifice their desires for the good of the group. This can mean leaving space for people to bring their ideas forward, and the leader tabling their priorities for the benefit of the organization’s mission.
They develop the song by slightly altering their contribution so the other parts can be even more engaging. Servant leaders influence the organization in a foundational, subconscious way so there isn’t a need to call attention to their status as a leader- it is felt. That feeling is understood through the development of the organization’s people. When they take ownership of tasks and advance in their own careers, then the servant leader has done their job. It is not necessarily something the leader directed, but rather establishing the philosophical culture that allowed for the people to flourish.
Although not traditionally thought of as a leading element, the bass in music in analogous to the servant leader philosophy. It is often hard to describe in words why we like a song or feel good about working in an organization. It just seems right. Serving the people in the group is what makes for high-performing organizations and memorable music. Challenge yourself to be the bass player on your team!