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The Law of Magnetism

November 16, 2011

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Nine (or, Chapter Nine as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of Magnetism.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “Who you are is who you Attract.”

I’ll admit this right now: most people I have talked to find this to be a disquieting prospect. Think about it: You are who you attract.  When I mention this law, most people cringe in some way. One person said, “Wait a minute… I always joked I was a nerd magnet!”  And another said, “Oh no. All I have is damaged people in my life!”  I suppose it can go the other way, too. Think about your “circle.” Who’s in it? What kind of people are they? Few of us want to face it, but the Law of Magnetism is eerily accurate. You are who you attract.

I’ll admit something else. This is, perhaps, my favorite “law.” One thing I love to do is watch people and note who hangs out with whom. It is deep in our nature to find our “tribe” as humans.  For instance, just look at your ensemble in rehearsal! That’s a case right there where people from all walks of life have found common ground in a passion for music.  Even more fun: go to a comic book or star trek convention. I find it very entertaining to see that these people have found one another.

(Not my family photo)

Now, on to Maxwell’s words.

“Effective leaders are always on the lookout for good people,” is the sentence that begins this chapter. In the conducting profession we are often looking for the best musician, which doesn’t always translate into who is a good person. (It is hard to tell that sort of thing from a resume or an audition behind a screen.) But, truthfully, people want to show up every day and see/work with people they like. They want to be around good people. Some conductors maintain they don’t care; they want the best musicians possible regardless of character. But, when pressed, those same conductors will tell story after story of people they have gotten rid of from their ensembles – sometimes a musically based decision, but many times a personal (personnel?) one.

Do you know what qualities you are looking for in other people? I have some I regularly seek:

  • Hard working
  • On time and reliable
  • Enthusiastic
  • Pleasant
  • Personally engaging
  • Not prone to gossip (ok, that’s hard to avoid in our business)
  • A person who is not a “cancer” to the organization, a negative attitude is cancerous
  • A person who doesn’t deflect responsibility
  • A person who gives good energy to the group; a giver not a taker
  • A solid musician

The “solid musician” part is usually apparent in the first few seconds/minutes of an audition. You can tell whether or not someone is a good fit, musically, for the group pretty early in the audition process. It’s the other stuff that I spend my time figuring after I have determined that the person is musically appropriate for the ensemble. A big problem is that a resume states qualifications, not character, and an audition reflects the person’s musical skills but not professional or interpersonal skills. I keep asking myself while I listen to them, “what will this person bring to the ensemble?”

Maxwell continues with a little chart you can fill in: “My People Would Have These Qualities.”  He then tells us, “Believe it or not, who you get is not determined by what you want. It’s determined by who you are.” Once you make a list of the qualities you want in others, you have to exhibit those qualities to attract them.

A section of this chapter is dedicated to “From Musicianship to Leadership,” one of the few places in this book where Maxwell discusses music. It isn’t in depth; Maxwell basically tells us the story of a church in San Diego where he followed a pastor who was an excellent musician. Maxwell admits to being inferior to his predecessor, musically speaking. After a few years there Maxwell notes that the talented musicians stopped committing to church, but the congregation was stocked with great leaders. His organization reflected the Law of Magnetism.

Why is this chapter so great? Take a look at your organization. Do you claim it is full of positive, hard-working people? Is it full of negative individuals? As Maxwell writes, “If you think your people are negative, then you better check your attitude.” Maxwell continues with a set of characteristics:

  • Attitude: Rarely do positive and negative people attract one another. People who see life as a series of challenges and opportunities don’t want to spend time with people who complain about how awful life is. Negative people find positive people often tedious and naive.
  • Generation: People tend to attract others of the same age. (For many of us who conduct at universities, we have two different demographics: our colleagues and our students.)
  • Background: People of the same or similar backgrounds tend to attract one another. Are you from the Northeast USA and educated at a private school? Are you from the inner city and had to scrape for your education and opportunities? You will naturally resonate with people who have a similar fund of experiences and background.
  • Values: People are attracted to leaders whose values are similar to their own. Great values don’t equate to great leadership skills: Adolph Hitler and John F. Kennedy inspired and motivated a lot of people with completely different ideologies. But, your value set will attract a certain type of person. Whatever character you possess you will likely find in the people who follow you.
  • Life Experience: Your life experience matters. Think of the 28 year old conductor who has been thrown in front of a professional ensemble. What could they possibly bring to Mahler’s 9th Symphony with such little life experience? This level of experience, and how you use it, equates to attracting people who value such things.
  • Leadership Ability: The people you attract will have leadership ability similar to your own. As discussed in the Law of Respect, people follow leaders stronger than themselves. Factoring in the Law of Magnetism, we can safely say that a mediocre leader attracts mediocre leaders, and even lesser followers.

This great chapter closes out with a memorable quote: “If you think the people you attract could be better, then it’s time for you to improve yourself.”

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