What’s Self-Esteem Got to Do with It?

It’s at the foundation of my view of leadership, an article of faith, and a “Basic Principle”: “Maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others.” To my knowledge, no one has ever questioned Basic Principle 2, so I expect to be burned at the nearest stake for the following account of recent family events.

This fall my son Greg began studies at a well-known music conservatory. We’ll call his violin teacher “Professor Z,” an octogenarian and living legend who still performs and often gets calls from the world’s top soloists seeking performance tips.

I went with Greg to his first lesson with Professor Z, lasting four hours, during which I directly observed his stamina, clarity of mind, and teaching methods — all since confirmed by Greg in many phone calls and a beautiful essay he wrote about Professor Z for a humanities class.

Let’s not mince words: Professor Z is the most brutal teacher I have ever met. More brutal even than my grad-school mentor/torturer, who used to skewer me intellectually, in public, like the Olympic fencer he had been. Professor Z does not give a fig about maintaining the self-confidence and self-esteem of others. From Greg’s essay:

The freshman, visibly nervous, again plays the first bars. Laughing, Professor Z interrupts: “You speak the language, but you have no idea what you are saying!” He demonstrates on his violin. “Now play!” The student imitates his teacher’s playing. Professor Z shouts, “No! Don’t just copy me! Use your imagination and phrase according to what the composer wrote!”

Compared to Greg’s reports and what I saw in person, this episode is mild. When a student displeases him, Professor Z can explode —in shouts, sarcasm, or both — with the sharpest criticism that I’m sure these young people will ever hear. Students occasionally cry during a lesson.

Yet talented young musicians from all over the world flock to Professor Z, if he will have them, and most have impressive careers after their time with him. Why? Again, in Greg’s words:

I sense a profound love that Professor Z has for his students. All his criticisms, painful as they may be for students to hear, reflect his many decades of performing, teaching, and observing. Today, all is focused on requiring this student to rise to the highest standards and realize whatever promise he may show. To conclude two hours of brisk instruction and unvarnished criticism, Professor Z says, calmly, “I want you to succeed. I am on your side. But I am preparing you for the people who aren’t.”

The devotion that his students show, the results that he gets, and the love that he expresses so ferociously — I saw it as well — all lead me to ask: Is it always best for a leader to maintain the self-confidence and self-esteem of others?

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