A person works a soundboard while musicians play.

Finding Entrepreneurial Leadership in Recording Studios

Elizabeth Long Lingo draws lessons in “Creative Brokering” from Nashville music producers
October 28, 2020

Elizabeth Long Lingo spent seven years studying Nashville music producers to understand their entrepreneurial leadership strategies, so it was probably inevitable that at some point she would try her hand at what she was watching.

The assistant professor in the Business School wrote the song “’til Quitting Time” about a waitress, found aspiring artists and musicians to record it, and produced a demo track that … did not become a hit.

“Obviously, I am not a songwriter,” she says with a laugh, “but my research is all about experiences, and I can’t write about something until I’ve done it.”

What Long Lingo learned from her experience has helped inform her research into a style of entrepreneurial leadership that she calls “creative brokering”—a way of mobilizing and directing teams of creative experts with competing viewpoints to produce something novel and of value. It’s a model of leadership she says can be used to produce success in industries other than country music.

“The process music producers use to manage tensions, help team members stay committed, and elicit expertise and input from stakeholders relies on emotional intelligence,” says Long Lingo, who is an expert on negotiation and organizational behavior. “Once you understand how music producers successfully manage people with different talents and opinions to create songs, you can apply the insights and techniques to other industries.”

An article on her research appeared in the Journal of Management Studies in March.

The classic view of an entrepreneur is of the individual genius who generates and drives ideas, but this view misses the important role of synthesizing ideas and negotiating with expert team members to develop an integrated, implementable outcome, Long Lingo says.

“You can be a leader who has an idea and tells creative people what to do, but that type of entrepreneurial leadership rarely works,” she says. “Another type of creative leadership involves facilitating other people's creativity. But there’s a third way, a type of integrative creative leadership in which the leader has their own vision but must also co-create and negotiate with a network of experts to bring everything together.”

I watched real-life negotiations unfold and saw how much ambiguity, passion, ego, and soul went into the production of music.
  • Elizabeth Long Lingo
  • Assistant Professor, The Business School

Research into entrepreneurial leadership often takes place in laboratory settings or through surveys, but Long Lingo takes an ethnographic approach to research by immersing herself in an environment to observe people’s behavior and tease out their actions.

She first noticed the skills and strategies of music producers while pursuing her PhD in the joint program in organizational behavior and sociology at Harvard University and Harvard Business School. By day, she studied negotiations. At night, she spent time with her husband, a singer-songwriter, and watched music being produced.

“I watched real-life negotiations unfold," she says, "and saw how much ambiguity, passion, ego, and soul went into the production of music.”

The couple moved to Nashville, where she studied established and aspiring producers. In her article, Long Lingo describes producers who engage in creative brokering behind the scenes with record label executives, writers, singers, musicians, and sound engineers. The producers navigate a constellation of relationships—strategically bringing actors together and keeping them apart to gain funding and access to the best songs and to manage the subtle social dynamics of the recording studio.

For the producers, Long Lingo’s research was a chance to talk about how they worked.

“I think it was the first time anyone asked them about their work, not just the songs, the studio, or the gear,” she says. “Nobody had asked them about the leadership, negotiation, and emotional challenges of working with people with egos and balancing that with the technical challenges.”

Long Lingo, who also consults with executives and organizations on entrepreneurship and leading change, is taking lessons she learned in Nashville and applying them at WPI. She is a co-PI on a $1 million National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant to examine and address systemic bias that may undermine female and underrepresented faculty’s promotion to full professor. As part of this effort, she has created a training program for department heads, who play a critical role in the faculty’s advancement but may not necessarily see themselves as leaders of creative experts.

“I’m really excited about this," she says, "because it’s a chance for me to take my research on entrepreneurship and creative leadership and immediately put it into practice at WPI as part of this effort.”

—Lisa Eckelbecker