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As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the impact the great singer has had on both my personal and professional life and how I believe we may draw a parallel between music and management.

Her attributes and values, – and those of music itself – can provide insight into how we teach business and management and what makes a successful manager.

From everything associated to La Callas – her incredible talent, her large and powerful vocal range, her unique interpretations, the scandals surrounding her life, her demise and premature death – what marked me the most about her was her passion.

There was passion in her at every level, confirming that if you do not have passion in everything you undertake, professionally or personally, then your chances of succeeding are low. This has become my motto.

Adding this passion to what she was already – a fascinating intercultural ambassador of Greek origin, born in New York City, leading an international career which ended in Paris, in addition to the many languages she mastered throughout her life – made of her an icon that many looked up to.

She can also be considered to have been a successful business woman, earning her own money independently from her husband, who chose to abandon his own business. Such independence was in those times rare and upheld her as a role model to many women.

I have always believed in a parallel between the interpretation of music scores and that of management theories as, in my view, music and management have the same principles.

A music score can be compared with a management textbook and the role of an interpreter on stage mirrors perfectly the role of a manager in the world of business. Management theory and a music score are nothing without the person who will interpret them, the manager or the musician.

The score or the management books tell you what to do, but it is how you do it that counts.

Music has always occupied a very important place in my life. I developed a love for music at an early age, learning to play the violin and singing in a choir.

With the love of music came also the realisation that you cannot get anywhere without passion, hard work and perseverance.

Callas did have wonderful talent but dedicated her life to it; she wouldn’t have succeeded otherwise. While I didn’t have the perseverance or patience to persist with the violin in my childhood, classical singing and music is one of my passions and supports me tremendously both personally and professionally.

Passion is the driving factor towards success. It makes the difference between a good musician or manager and an outstanding one.

Your passion will permeate your audience or your team and motivate them. It fosters enthusiasm and encourages your staff to adhere to your projects and give you their very best. It gives you courage and strength in the face of adversity and leads you to always persevere in order to reach your goals but also to establish new ones.

From Callas’s passion stemmed many characteristics and values that one can find in the best managers today the world over.

She was determined, a
perfectionist, a risk-taker, innovative, revolutionary but above all she was charismatic and she never lost sight of her objectives.

Maria Callas was dedicated to satisfying her audience. She certainly applied customer satisfaction skills perfectly, as she was always striving for excellence and took it to heart when her performance was not up to the standards she had set herself.

In other words, if she didn’t feel capable of giving her best, she wouldn’t perform at all.

In 1958, when the Metropolitan Opera House fired her for an alleged breach of contract, she defended her actions by stating that the order of roles and their required vocal ranges in the contract would not favour her voice.

As she was also constantly striving to innovate and interpret productions in a unique way, including scenery and costumes at The Met Opera House, which she insisted needed some serious updating, even if the opera house did not agree.

Callas was a rebel to all conventional singing and performances, no matter what the critics would say. She is renowned for declaring that she didn’t want to keep doing old productions, she needed new productions and detested multiple repeat performances of operas.

While her pursuit of artistic perfection attracted admiration, it also brought condemnation.

When she apparently walked out after the first act of Norma in Rome in 1958 due to a sore throat – provoking anger in the audience – she came under attack. Unfortunately the Italian president was in the audience and the incident made the headlines.

But Maria Callas wasn’t the kind of artist who would perform if not at her best. As for the end of her career, while some attributed her demise to a loss of confidence or a broken heart following her failed relationship with Aristotle Onassis and his subsequent marriage to Jackie Kennedy, the truth is she probably withdrew from the public eye as she knew her limits and wasn’t going to ever be able to perform as she once was capable of doing.

This is a quality I greatly admire – that of only doing things if one is able to produce the standards that one has set oneself and that others are used to.

If not, stepping down should not be seen as a disgrace but as a mark of respect to all that was accomplished previously.

Managers should bear this in mind as well and let others take over when the time has come for encouraging a natural renewal of ideas and talent.

In a similar vein, I have recordings of the Master Classes she gave at the Juilliard School in New York in 1971-72 during which her high standards are again evident, even at the end of her career. You hear her stop students after every single phrase, helping them reach perfection through constant practicing and repetition.

This is what I think good management teaching should be like: relentless practising to accomplish excellence.

This is what we try to apply at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business (GGSB). We put students in a “real-life” context in the classroom, acting out business situations not only with academics but also with managers and consultants from the corporate world.

I believe my passion is seen in the GGSB programmes, and I always strive to convey this passion to staff and students.

In return I feel that I am fortunate to have an enthusiastic team and faculty who share this approach and who are passionate about their in training future managers and business leaders.

Our students have often told me that they perceive this to be one of our strengths, especially since we are dealing with over 50 nationalities daily.

Singing opera as a hobby has helped me tremendously in my work at all levels. Performing on stage, interpreting characters from opera and singing solos is an excellent training for self-control, interpersonal relations, controlling one’s emotions and boosting confidence.

Music has helped me to gain confidence in my own judgment, to remain calm in situations of stress, to acquire management and leadership skills.

But most of all the various characters from opera that I have interpreted on stage have made me more innovative in my way of thinking and brought out the creative side of my personality.

These roles have also helped me relate to others more easily, see situations and problems from different perspectives and speak from the heart.

Singing in choirs, singing a role in an opera, playing an instrument in an orchestra, also demonstrate the importance of being a good team player.

It is the sum of all the individual efforts that produces the final result, since every person plays an important role in the overall success of the performance just as every employee on every level contributes to the success of a business.

Callas embodied many different characters throughout her career. Her phenomenal body language and interpretations made her an outstanding performer and role model that her audience and fans admired.

In many roles, her body language and stage presence were just as remarkable as her vocal capacities. Observing this body language is an excellent lesson for managers, especially for those who often find themselves in a multicultural environment. Sometimes the body expresses what words cannot.

In management, it is up to every individual to interpret the theory in their own personal way, to add their personal touch and their own ingredients such as passion, enthusiasm and sincerity and to set an example by delivering consistently to a high standard in order to be an inspirational leader.

Callas embodied all this perfectly.

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