“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” —Prince
I’m pretty sure you never considered Prince a poster child for leadership, but his uncanny ability to hear would have made him a great one. By the time he hit his stride in the summer of 1984 with the release of his album, Purple Rain, Prince’s music had acquired the power to point millions of fans to something larger than themselves —a power which derived from Prince’s expertise in the rare art of deep listening. Perhaps most crucially, Prince’s music has helped people from all walks of life magnify their own sense of what’s possible. If the hallmark of great leadership is the capacity to empower others to feel that their own dreams are achievable, Prince clearly possessed the makings of a true leader.
Before we’d ever heard his name, Prince had absorbed a vast array of musical influences, expanded upon them, and repurposed them as the building blocks of his own songs. Prince learned the art of story-songs like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from Joni Mitchell, one of his earliest idols. The ultra funky guitar stylings that he used in songs like “Kiss” and “Controversy” were gleaned from listening to Tony Maiden, Chaka Khan’s amazing guitarist. The dark minimalism of Sly and The Family Stone’s arrangements were the impetus for Prince’s unorthodox decision to leave the bass guitar off “When Doves Cry”, one of his biggest hits. No matter what stage he was at in his career, Prince was listening, gathering up ideas, and storing them away in his seemingly infinite paintbox of musical colors.
Listening to the mastery and depth of Prince’s recordings brings into focus just how much we can all gain from stepping outside our own biases and beliefs. Whether it’s politics, the arts, or everyday discourse, there is a pervasive narrow-mindedness that’s on the rise these days, and it’s up to everyone in a position of influence (and who among us is not in some position of influence) to work against this trend by listening more often, and more intently to what’s going on around them.
As leaders we are too comfortable with pouring out oceans of words, and yet so often we don’t hear anything but the sound of our own voices. Take a moment to listen to Prince’s music today and you’ll see by virtue of his genius that he showed us how much more there is to listen for.
While most of us are habituated to listening at the depth of say, an inch or so, others of us, the more skilled ones, are able to listen at the depth of a foot. Prince was able to listen at a depth of thousands of feet. With every song he left behind, he informs us that the very act of listening is a skill we can constantly improve upon. We can do better. We can listen more and say less. We can listen in ways that are more attentive and less perfunctory.
If we could hear like Prince, maybe we’d be able to hear one another, maybe we’d be able to hear past our own assumptions —and maybe then, we’d be able to hear with the sole intention of understanding.
Previously published in Forbes.