I recently came across a fascinating story on leadership and maturity in The New York Times (April 2, 2006). The article recounted the tale of Erika Sunnegardh, a 40-year-old soprano who was about to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. It was, in fact, one of those dramatic moments in the arts. As the understudy, Ms. Sunnegardh, had received the call to step in as Leonore, the lead role of Beethoven's "Fidelio," and replace the ailing star, Karita Mattila. On top of the challenge of debuting at the Met as a leading player, Ms. Sunnegardh's performance was scheduled for Saturday, the day of the Met's radio broadcast. An audience of about 10 million people from around the world would be listening.
Erika Sunnegardh's story was an interesting one. Raised by musical parents in Sweden, she had studied singing and modern dance. She had come to New York City to seek her fortune at the age of 19. Lacking success she began, like so many other would-be performers, to wait tables. This work in restaurants and for catering groups continued for twenty years. But she also continued to sing, primarily performing in church choirs.
Frustrated by her stagnation Ms. Sunnegardh eventually resumed her training, this time returning to study with her mother. Her earlier training in New York had left her without the assurance, the confidence necessary for success. ''Vocal technique is like money or sex,'' she explained in the article, ''If you don't have it, it's all you think about.'' Her focus as well as her abilities improved and after an audition with Music Director James Levine, she was offered the opportunity to understudy and eventually play roles on the Metropolitan Opera stage.
Jonathan Friend, the artistic administrator of the Met, commented, "We were amazed at how big the voice was, especially at the top." He added that she had both beauty and maturity. ''She was, as a human being, grown up,'' he said. ''She had had another life, and knew what she didn't know." On her website Ms. Sunnegardh puts it this way, "Clearly, we re-visit old territory to learn more deeply, or to refresh our humility, and maybe most of all, gain clear insight into our magical, mystical and blessed stat of 'non-knowing.' It is after all then, and only then, that we can learn and grow at all!"
Daniel J. Wakin interviewed the singer only a few days before she learned that she was to star in "Fidelio." He wrote, "The humbleness of waiting on tables, she said, prepared her to deal with the pressure of a big career. Singing at funerals taught her that musical performance was not a celebration of the ego but something to be transmitted to other individuals. Years of struggle freed her from the debilitating fear of failure."
The New York Times review of the performance was less than glowing, but it pointed out "after intermission, in Act II, she seemed more relaxed and took greater chances, especially in the climatic scene when she defies the tyrannical governor of the prison and saves the day. She grew stronger as the opera swept forward to its joyous conclusion… she has talent, grit and determination."
By now you may wondering how this story relates to leadership. But let me assure you that Ms. Sunnegardh's story carries some very solid leadership lessons. The first, of course, is persistence. Eventually, the strength of her vision caused Ms. Sunnegardh to return to her love of music and seek out the opportunity that would give her true career a rebirth. It was her life experience, however, that really made her a better singer. She came to realize, through her singing at the church and at funerals, that "it wasn't just about her."
Ms. Sunnegardh had developed "artistic maturity." I believe that true leaders have to develop "leadership maturity." Great leaders realize that their role is not about themselves, but "something to be transmitted to other individuals."
As leaders, we must always Enable Others to Act. The key to success is not found in celebrating our own ego and individual accomplishments. It is, however, in creating confidence within the people we are counting on for great performance.