What Secrets Did Puccini Know About Leading People?


iacomo Puccini was born in 1858, in the beautiful, walled Tuscan city of Lucca which stands on the  Serchio, a fertile plain not far from the Tyrrhenian Sea.

To say that Puccini’s family had a musical heritage would be a major understatement. Between 1740 and 1864, the head of the Puccini family was maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino. Sadly for Giacomo, his father died when he was just six, and this long sequence ended as he was too young to assume the responsibility himself.

He was able to continue his musical education, however, thanks to various uncles who stepped up to finance his attendance at some of the best schools, including the Milan Conservatory. It was here, at the Conservatory that his talent was first recognised.

It wasn’t a straight line of success, however. His second opera, Edgar, bombed and without the staunch support of Giulio Ricardo, a music publisher who’d bought into Giacomo early on, it is likely he would have disappeared without a trace.

Success And Tragedy

The rich flowering of his talent includes three great operas.

  1.  La Bohème
  2. Tosca
  3. Madama Butterfly

Hs final opera, Turandot was unfinished at the time of his death in 1924 but was completed by Franco Alfano based on the composer’s sketches for the last two scenes. This is the opera that includes the Nessun Dorma aria.

Puccini was in many ways a lucky man. He had a supportive family, his mother, in particular, making many sacrifices to enable him to benefit from the best musical education available. Additionally, his uncles made sure his education was fully financed. He also benefitted from crucial backing when he reached an early career crossroads.

That said, his success was mingled with a measure of tragedy. He was not a faithful husband, and sadly this caused his wife to wrongly accuse a servant of having an affair with him. In an example of life imitating art, the young girl, completely innocent of the charges, committed suicide.

Later still he was seriously injured in a car accident. His last years were dogged by ill health contributed to no doubt by his passion for cigar smoking.

Throughout his life, the formula he used in writing his greatest work followed the same basic template. Simple characterisation, great musicality and an appreciation of theatre.

The combined effect is what creates the passionate connection with audiences we see today from around the world and across the ages.

Do Consistently What You Believe In

Despite, or possibly because of Puccini’s great success, his music has not always been well regarded by the critics. Classic FM has this to say:

Puccini always claimed that his work could be sung in any language yet still be understood: his characters are gloriously uncomplicated, his pacing immaculate, his music absolutely at one with the dramatic situation. It's all just a tad too obvious for the intelligentsia.

The Times obituary published in November 1924 began:

Giacomo Puccini…had held first place among the composers of opera so decisively that to the majority of opera-goers he seemed to stand alone.

The Times then puts the knife in.

Musicians may find among his contemporaries a dozen or more names whose works for the stage they will prefer before his. (They) have all displayed qualities which…are beyond the range of Puccini's art, yet none of them competes for his position of favour in the eyes of the public.

Puccini passionately believed in what he was doing. Here he is describing how he saw his calling.

Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said: ‘Write for the theatre – mind, only for the theatre’. And I have obeyed his supreme command.

He wasn't writing for the critics. He was writing for audiences. For Puccini, delivering what audiences wanted was a matter of artistic integrity. 

Puccini knew what drove great opera and what he had to do to deliver it. In time, his audiences learnt to trust him. For trust to emerge, actions must have integrity – and integrity is created when you act consistently in line with what you believe.

To boil it down, Puccini found what he believed in, they stayed faithful to it over time.

Coach And Inspire Your People

When Puccini's operas were first performed he did something unusual. He came to rehearsals, but he didn’t conduct. He did so because that way he could communicate with the regular conductors so that they developed an intimate understanding of his musical intentions.

By taking this unconventional route, he ensured that performances would be consistent with his overall artistic design. He inspired and empowered his conductors so that they were able to deliver what he wanted, even when he was no longer present.

The Times obituary explores this further:

He was ready to acknowledge the great debt which he owed to his interpreters…By writing music which it was a joy to sing he could be certain that the singer would convey his own pleasure in it to his hearers.

If Puccini’s operatic score was the plan, he understood that the delivery of it only worked when the performers fully engaged with the performance.

This humility – his willingness to acknowledge and celebrate the vital role which his performers played – is another great leadership lesson Puccini provides. 

Puccini knew that if his music was to be delivered as he intended, it made sense to spend time with those who must deliver it. Aligning people to what is needed remains a crucial leadership competency.

Puccini had the instinctive ability to look beyond himself to attribute responsibility for success.

The Takeaway

I think Puccini does provide some interesting lessons for leaders.

  1. By clarifying his core purpose he could prevent things from getting between his work and the audiences he wrote for. 

The next time you’re struggling between competing priorities, take it back to your core purpose and strip everything else away. If you can see clearly what your most important goal is, it might help clarify what needs to happen next.

2. As a composer, Puccini didn’t think his work was finished once the ink on the score was dry. He worked with the people who had to make the music happen, making sure they understood his vision. This means much more than being able to read the music; it goes deeper. He wanted them to feel what he expected the music to convey.

When your plan is failing to get traction, ask yourself if you’ve spent enough time buying people into your vision. Check if you’ve coached them sufficiently so they instinctively grasp what lies beyond the words that are written in the plan. 

When people start believing in what’s planned, success is far more likely.

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That’s when a plan moves from a process and becomes something meaningful.

3. Finally, Puccini produced music that musicians would enjoy playing. There’s something significant about this. He wanted his performers to do more than play the notes. He wanted their full engagement with the music. If you’re not getting the results you ideally wish to, it’s worth asking yourself whether your people are as fully engaged as you need them to be.

People are far more likely to become engaged when work feels more like fun. That’s not the same as saying you want people to stop taking work seriously. Take the job seriously by all means, but don’t take yourself and the rest of the team too seriously. Find a way to lighten the mood, create some laughter and some fun.

Research shows that this will help improve both creativity and productivity too.

What historical figures inspire you?


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