Exceptional Leadership, Part II

An Interview with Peter McCoppin, internationally renowned orchestral conductor
By Vern Burkhardt
We exist as a totality—a physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual being. All those aspects need to be nurtured. This is balance. And we need to take this balance into everything we do—including, and especially our work. If we are leaders it is even more important.

Peter McCoppinLast week we explored Peter McCoppin's ideas about the essence of true leadership. This week we continue our interview with this renowned orchestra conductor, talking about how he switched to conducting training programs on leadership and communication. We also gain insight into how he applies his leadership principles in his personal life.

Vern Burkhardt (VB) Your corporate training program was originally developed for senior executives of Duke Energy Corporation, which provides gas and electricity services to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. How did that come about?

Peter McCoppin: I am reminded of Forest Gump. Stuff showed up and he just went for it. In so much as stuff just showed up and I just went for it.

In 1997 I was music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in North Carolina (USA). After one of my concerts in March of 1997 a group of people, friends, colleagues and I, went for supper. During the conversation one in our group, Sue Becht who was a senior executive in the Duke Energy Corporation, told us she'd just been offered the job of her dreams but was thinking of turning it down. We were mystified. In response to the obvious question of why, she said she had learned that a major component of the job was speaking in public to international audiences on behalf of the company. She had been terrified of public speaking all her life.

Later that evening she said to me "Peter, I've heard you regularly on the public radio—One Musician's Viewpoint. And I've listened to you present from the concert stage, and I’ve heard you speak motivationally to service groups. Have you ever taught communications skills and public speaking?" I replied "No", and she asked "Would you rise to the challenge?"

That dinner was on a Friday. Over the weekend I wrote a training manual titled Principles and Methods of Effective Communication and Public Speaking. I knew it had to be skills based, not just hype. I gave Sue three sessions on mastering the art of communication. She accepted the job in March. In July she phoned me and said "I've just given my first presentation on behalf of Duke Energy to an international audience in Palm Beach and it was very successful. One person’s comments epitomized the common sentiment. He said 'I've never met you before, but you were engaging, immediate and natural.'"

Then Sue asked if I would consider training Duke Energy's vice president tier. At the time I was conducting the symphony orchestras in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) and in Charlotte with a weekly commute, as well as working in Japan and Korea among other places.

VB: When did you make the switch from conductor and broadcaster to corporate trainer?

Peter McCoppin: In 2001 I felt I'd been conducting for a long time and wondered if leadership training was a greater gift that I could expand upon. I was introduced to the Director of Learning Services at Telus, a major telecommunications company in Canada. I was given a one hour audition of my skills to some senior executives. As a result I was offered a contract with Telus to provide communication skills training to their senior people. That's how it started.

I gave the training as well as I possibly could to groups in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver and it just rolled from there. Then in 2004 Karen Radford, Vice President of Technical Operations, phoned to ask whether I had done any team building seminars. I replied, "No", and asked why she would want a team building session. She said they had had team building sessions many times before but nothing had ever come of the training. It seemed to me I was being asked to step into a black hole. I was apprehensive about it because Telus had just extended my contract for another two years, and I knew if I blew this team building training my credibility would be jeopardized.

But I believe in going with the heart. So I thought I'd go with it. It was November 2nd; the team building session was to be December 8th and 9th, 2004. Not much time, and no model. Steven Covey says begin with the end in mind. Commit to the end and you’ll find a way to get there. I decided I would just go for it.

I had read a lot of books about leadership and teams and team engagement. It was key that it not be just a feel good session. The seminar participants had to define how they would relate and work with each other. There had to be a written record of their charter, and the participants had to own the paper they created. That was critical.

Here is what is interesting. You go with your heart and stuff shows up in your intellect. If you absolutely commit to something providence comes with you. In October, just a month before the team building session, while giving a presentation at a university I met a professor who informed me that team building was her area of specialization. And she had a model. I used only about ten percent of her model but it was helpful. The lesson is when you commit to something talk to somebody who knows and let our creative thinking flow.

I did the team building session at Telus. These were very senior people. They all had multiple degrees and type AA personalities like rockets going in different directions. As a result I was asked to conduct fourteen team building sessions with Telus within the next twelve months.

Then Karen Radford asked me to coach her for a keynote address to the American Telephone Association. She introduced me to other companies. So things just went on.

I have also provided communications seminars, leadership training and even a course on work/life balance. I was responding to the demand, and all the while doing as much as possible to be worthy of the opportunity. And to be vigilant and modest when I received any feedback about how to improve these sessions.

VB: An innate ability or lots of hard work, research and things you learned as a conductor?

Peter McCoppin: I would say I am now teaching what I most needed to learn.

Yes, I'd been a broadcaster and a key note speaker. But in terms of communicating and leading I believe I was inconsistent as a conductor. I was a bit whimsical. I was not deliberate and intentioned in all my behaviors. My inconsistency made many people feel uncertain around me.

I had talent, there's no question. I certainly had a vision for the music. But I was too preoccupied with wanting to be accepted rather than just doing the work and earning respect.

VB: Why do you think the response is so overwhelmingly positive when people attend your leadership seminars?

Peter McCoppin: That's a hard question for me to answer. I believe people see there is a lot of diligence in the preparation. There's inclusivity in the experience. Knowing that people support what they themselves create, I always approach groups with the fact that everything participants need to know they know already. I am just the facilitator to catalyze the dialogue and subtly direct the conversation. There is no bravado in me—I am there to learn just like everyone else. I think they feel I pour my heart into it. And I am there to serve them.

VB: It has been said participants become very open in these sessions. What is the phenomenon of being open?

Peter McCoppin: I think they feel safe. And they are safe—we are all there to learn.

I am often inspired by film. It is such a great medium. The film "On Golden Pond" really impressed me. We can all relate to struggles with parents. There is a moment in the film when the young boy is looking at Henry Fonda who plays a feisty rascal dealing with the challenges of old age. The boy says "that guy’s an old bastard…" Katherine Hepburn says to this young person "…sometimes you have to look at people really hard and know that they are struggling just as much as you are".

As a catalyst, teacher, mentor, facilitator—whatever you wish to call me—I appreciate that everyone is struggling and I am there just to assist. And I recognize you can’t teach anyone anything they don't already know. If I can be an agent to help people discover themselves then it is wonderful.

VB: You have a project in China?

Peter McCoppin: I have a couple of projects in China. One is a music theater in Xi'An, the home of the terracotta warriors and capital of the Shaanxi Province. We will have 350 performers on one stage. Called Chin, like the Chin dynasty, it is a one hour presentation about the war that united China. Of course there is a love story within it which adds artistic tension. We are still in the process of constructing the theater.

Also I work with Chinese businesses. I present privately held and profitable Chinese companies to investment bankers.

VB: Do you enjoy China?

Peter McCoppin: I enjoy the people and the culture.

I don’t enjoy China physically at all because it is so dirty. And I don't feel physically well there. I am sad to see what humankind has done to that part of our planet.

VB: And the explosion in the number of factories.

Peter McCoppin: I was going to get to that too. Also the unfairness of treating people like widgets and the absence of human dignity. That upsets me.

VB: You commented about what we are doing to our planet. Do you have hope about the global warming issue?

Peter McCoppin: I find some of the trends in the world today heartening in terms of global warming. This is an issue that faces one and all. I am seeing more and more of a groundswell of awareness about this issue. We are even seeing it in big retail stores. For example, more and more green products are becoming available. That is so heartening.

VB: Does your approach to leadership and relationships also work in one's personal life?

Peter McCoppin: Totally. It is all about building self-awareness, self-governance, self-confidence and self-direction. Also important is increasing empathy for others, recognizing that their perception is their reality. It includes building habits of behavior that forge trust and engagement, nurture appreciation, and inspire people’s quests for significance and meaning. And at the centre is authentic presence.

I love to hear people tell me that the principles of true leadership we talk about in the seminars are applicable to their personal lives as well. One person told me quite recently the course shouldn't be called "The Essence of True Leadership". She recommended it be changed to "The Essence of True Living". Many people have told me they are going to use the basic principles and approaches in their marriage or in their relationship with their partner.

VB: Do you think it is important or necessary to lead a balanced life if you want to be creative, successful, and happy?

Peter McCoppin: Absolutely. Though some people think of balance as an external phenomenon. If I have a little bit of this and that, then I will find balance.

I think balance is intrinsic. People who are truly balanced are balanced moment by moment, and they work to find and maintain that balance. In other words, they know their values and their vision. They consciously and intentionally measure their choices, behaviors and actions—in that order—against those values and that vision. And that is how they find their balance. I am often so inspired by that.

Students of the founder of Aikido, Morihel Ueshiba, observed that he was always in balance. His reply was to the contrary, he was typically out of balance but he knew how to get back into balance. It was by an intentioned choice—this is what I am choosing to do. Does it align with my values? Am I authentic when I do this?

We exist as a totality; physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. All of these aspects need to be nurtured. I believe it is either all or nothing—to live within a very narrow parameter is to deny ourselves our full potential and creativity. That also is balance.

VB: You have an excellent memory.

Peter McCoppin: I would say my memory is multi-lateral. I can identify music and words by visualizing where they are on pages of work. But I also remember contextually and referentially. I remember how I was feeling, if driving a car where the intersection was, what had been said just before, what the weather was like, what the person was wearing. That can be developed, like a muscle.

VB: You are present and very much focused when you meet and interact with others. Does this help you remember details of events and interactions?

Peter McCoppin: I never really thought about it before but I think that is true.

When we are scattered our experience is vague and unspecific. But when we are in the now and are vigilant we will pick up subtle responses that will help us remember.

VB: I have talked to three people who attended your seminar and each observed that during the three days spent with you their mind never once wandered as it usually does during meetings, social interactions or training sessions. They spoke of you as being very focused. Would you talk about that?

Peter McCoppin: I think it is a learned skill.

We all experience self-talk, some people call it chatter. I realized that when I was rattled in my own head, listening to my self-talk, I was not really present with other people. So I practiced until I could turn off the self-talk. Now my head is still.

VB: What did you do to eliminate your self-talk?

Peter McCoppin: In the first place by continually investigating the person with whom I was having a conversation. By suspending any assumptions and by listening with my full body, all of me. By taking off my skin. It sounds like a strange way of saying it but it means being fully there for the other. To feel their feelings or at least be receptive to their feelings. To allow myself to be vulnerable. To allow my creative thoughts to surface.

VB: What would you like to be remembered for?

Peter McCoppin: I would like to be remembered as a person who somehow, in the background, encouraged many people to be their best self.

VB: Who are some of the more interesting people you have met?

Peter McCoppin: The first thing that comes to mind is small children who have not yet been conditioned to abandon their heart and self. Who have not gone through the educational process of being socialized to conform.

Sergiu Celibidache, who was born in 1912 and died in 1996, was a conductor, magnificent mentor, and great teacher. I had heard about him for some time prior to being in his presence for sixteen lectures on music and fourteen rehearsals while he was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was impressed by how sophisticated he was. He held Ph.D.’s in music, musicology, philosophy and mathematics, and he spoke seven languages. But it was the principle by which he governed himself that most impressed me. He said you have to lose yourself, to find yourself. He said begin empty. I am still wondering about some aspects of what he meant. He impressed me very much.

I have never met the Dali Lama, but I have been in his presence with a very small group of people several times. He is so humble, modest and compassionate; it really lifts my heart. He is a person who really leads from a place of love.

I have a friend, Irvin Huberfeld, who started a big company, thousands of employees. He had a special edition printed of the book that most inspired him printed beautifully and bound in leather. He gave a copy and a gold coin to every one of his employees as a gift. He said "If you keep these you will never be poor." I thought that was beautiful.

My grandmother who grew up in the late 1800's—she was 85 in 1960—was married to a man who beat her. Yet she had a quiet dignity. She had an instinctive sense about me. When I was five she took me to a movie about Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist of the 19th century.

VB: Your grandmother obviously had an impact on you.

Peter McCoppin: I feel very honored by the attention she gave me.

When I think of great people I also think of Mother Teresa who was asked how she could walk through the streets of Calcutta and see people disfigured and mutilated with disease. She replied that she saw Christ in all of them. I truly believe there is an inherent goodness in most people.

VB: What books would you highly recommend?

Peter McCoppin: I would highly recommend a number of books. Gregg Braden's The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief; Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose; David Hawkins' Power Versus Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior; John Assaraf's Having It All: Achieving Your Life's Goals and Dreams; Stephen Mitchell's Tao Te Ching; and the Songs of David.

VB: Among the many, do any living conductors immediately come to mind as being especially noteworthy?

Peter McCoppin: Daniel Barenboim who was born in Argentina to Russian Jewish parents. I met him once. He is now in his mid 60's and I think he is challenged with physical health issues.

Barenboim has been extraordinarily successful in music all his life. I think he conducted the New York Philharmonic at the age of eleven. He is an astounding talent. And a great pianist. Talk about memory. During one week in New York he played the piano and conducted all twenty six Mozart concertos by memory. He did the whole thing—rehearsed, conducted, everything. It is phenomenal that a person can have that kind of intellectual capacity.

He is now conducting the West-East Divan Orchestra composed of young Jewish and Arab musicians. The orchestra is based in Seville, Spain and plays all over the world. He’s not doing concerts that earn him a lot of money. He uses the agency of music to promote dialog.

I understand Barenboim was recently awarded the highest order from the State of Israel. When he got up to speak, and it was a live presentation, he said he was deeply honoured and it was his intention through music to create understanding. He encouraged his fellow Jewish people to open their hearts and give much of the land in the West Bank back to the Palestinians. In the middle of this speech a woman on the stage got up and lambasted him. Do you know what he did? He just sat down. He didn't fight or dispute, he didn't refute or anything. Eventually the woman also sat down. He subsequently got up and said "Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak". Beautifully put. What we fight, we strengthen.

VB: When are you going to write an autobiography?

Peter McCoppin: I don't think my life has been that significant.

But I do want to write a book. I want to call it "Dance Before You Die". Its premise will be that most people never discover that special talent, that special gift which makes their heart sing. I believe I have found a way to assist people in discovering their special self.

VB: You lead an exceptionally busy life. What do you do to relax?

Peter McCoppin: I work out in a gym. I love to be in the garden and to walk to the ocean. In nature I am relaxed. I enjoy certain solitary sports such as swimming.

And I love to read. I don't think reading is relaxing. It is focused but not always relaxing.

Relaxed—interesting word when you think of relaxation as the absence of tension. I feel most relaxed when I am with my partner. Just in a still moment.

VB: Are you relaxed when you are conducting? Or when you are giving a seminar?

Peter McCoppin: Yes, I think I am. Yes, I am relaxed. Because I am so focused I am free of any other distractions. It is that alpha state or presence state.

VB: Do you have a favorite piece of music—a desert island piece?

Peter McCoppin: My desert island piece would be the "Requiem" by Brahms. It was written on the death of his mother. Dying words of his mother are included in the sung text. The work honors life and death in a deep and heartfelt manner.

I lost my own mother when I was eleven—the piece touches me personally. I began my musical life as a boy chorister. The great choral-orchestral works speak to my heart.

I conducted this work with the Vancouver Symphony in the year in which I led that organization out of bankruptcy. That was also the year of my father's death.


We need to know ourselves in order for others to know us. We are what we agree to be. Our attitude is our choice. Rather than just behave out of habit we can choose to strive to be fully alive, to be passionate.

We all have one need—hope.

Peter McCoppin talks about being present, about being in the moment when communicating and interacting with others. His total focus on the topic of conversation was evident during our interview. It is a skill worth learning. His approach makes one feel taken in, empowered, able to dialog in-depth and keen to explore and learn.

Peter recommends we "forge collaboration and excite creativity". It sounds like a conductor of a well-performing orchestra. It sounds like a leader of a well performing team, group or organization.

A professional entertainer or accomplished speaker appears relaxed and natural. This is not by chance. According to Peter, everything is or at least should be practiced. This includes, for example, where to sit, how to walk on stage, knowing what the person introducing you will say, lines or jokes that will sound "ad lib" but are not, breathing from one's center or core, knowing one's opening line, and the body language one will impart. So even appearing to be relaxed requires rehearsal!

Peter McCoppin has a Bachelor of Music in organ performance from the University of Toronto and studied conducting under some of the world's leading conductors. From 1975 to 1978 he was Head of the Orchestral Program and Professor of Conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Peter was Music Director of the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina from 1993 to 2000, Music Director of the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia from 1989 to 1999, and has been Principal Guest Conductor of symphonies world-wide (e.g., USA, Canada, Japan, China, Korea, Mexico, and Australia). He is frequently called on as a motivational guest speaker and provides leadership training programs. He is currently Music Director of the Asia Pacific Entertainment Incorporation, which will put on a gigantic musical performance in China in 2008.

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