What can happen when…

What can happen when the CEO of a major hospice is also a musician and a trained music therapist?

Nigel Hartley

Tia was already familiar with Mountbatten CEO Nigel Hartley’s publications on music, death, dying and care before she first visited St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham in 2010Nigel was then working as Director of Supportive Care (he held that post from 2003 to 2015). And Tia was visiting with her research partner, Gary Ansdell, before they gave a talk at the hospice’s international symposium, ‘The Arts in a time of crisis- living and dying creatively in a changing world’. 

One of the things Tia noticed immediately was how important aesthetics were to the hospice’s work – everything from the brightly coloured (and very comfortable) armchairs in the large lounge, to the paint being applied that very day to the corridor walls (‘warm white’, said a painter as they paused to admire, a colour that draws light in and doesn’t look ‘clinical’).

In 2019 Nigel kindly agreed to serve as a member of the Care for Music International Advisory Board. After a long two days of meetings and discussions related to that project, Wolfgang Schmid and his partner invited everyone back to their home for a pizza and wine. After dinner, accompanied on Wolfgang’s piano by Gary Ansdell, Nigel sang –beautifully, a good number of the classic ballad tunes, Moon River, Rainbow, Autumn Leaves… The mood was mellow. Others joined in. It was a magical, musical evening….

Moon River

Which leads to the question of this post. Nigel has advanced training in business management (an MBA), but also in music, and in music therapy. Over the years, Tia has found that if you ask any musician or music therapist what his or her core skills consist of, the answer will probably include – being able to listen carefully. That means, among other things, awareness of nuance and a concern with the ‘now’ of human communication.

In relation to that ‘now’, one of the most profound things – in Tia’s personal view – that Nigel has ever said (in print) came as a response to a question about whether or not a particular session of music therapy with a dying woman ‘made a difference’ to the overall quality of that woman’s life. 

Nigel replied:

“I think in asking this we are in danger of losing the sense of the now and what’s really important – the health system we work in always wants to ask: Did it make a difference? It certainly made a difference at that moment” (Hartley 2009: 66).

A concern with the ‘now’, or ‘moment’ is a concern with existential matters – how things are experienced, and in ways that may precede or even side-step conscious, calculating, propositional thought. This experience is sensorial, symbolic, affective, embodied.  And it is shaped by things like ambience, atmosphere, the ‘music’ of interaction. It is, perhaps inevitably, perhaps fortunately, hard to specify, hard to quantify, hard to test or measure. 

Within the academic study of management theory some researchers (Antonio Strati; Robert Witkin) have suggested that paying close attention to, and engaging with, aesthetic materials (for example, listening closely to ambient sounds, or responding to the décor in a meeting room) is vitally important to the quality of experience and interaction style. It is important because it activates our sensory ‘intelligences’, how we pick up and act upon what we feel to be a mood. So, the ambience and atmosphere of a place may calm or quicken us. It may include décor, art work, ambient sound, the ‘music’ of our speaking voices. Or the colour of the paint we put on the corridor walls…

The academic leader, Ian Sutherland (another music-trained CEO), writing about senior leadership and aesthetics, has suggested that organisational aesthetics contribute to what he calls, ‘memories with momentum’. By this, Sutherland means that, within organisational and social settings, aesthetic arrangements and activities can support meaningful experiential moments. They support our very being – opening us to new ways of feeling, thinking, speaking, acting… Engaging with aesthetic materials can, Sutherland suggests, carry us forward, better equip us for whatever we might need to do next.  So, in Sutherland’s sense, the ‘experiential now’, is the existential basis for what comes to be our future. 

Anyone who has ever found themselves re-invigorated after hearing music or finding a moment’s peace when looking at a picture or spending some time in a garden will understand perfectly what brief engagement with something we find beautiful, meaningful. By locating something that ‘speaks’ to us, we also forge or strengthen connections to others, an, at least a temporary, sense of wholeness, possibly peace, perhaps even grace and the strength to face the challenges that may lie ahead. 

This isn’t to say that every CEO needs to be a musician or a poet. But perhaps it is to say that having a sensitivity to what a moment can do, and what aesthetics can do for that moment, is something all good CEOs will possess. 


Hartley, N. (2009). The Creative Arts in Palliative Care: The Art of DyingPp. 64-69 in Consent and Deceit in Pain Medicine. The British Pain Society. Retrieved on April 22, 2020

Strati, A. 1999. Organisations and Aesthetics. London: Sage.

Sutherland, I. 2015. Arts-based methods in leadership development: Affording aesthetic workspaces, reflexivity and memories with momentum. Management and Learning 44, 1, pp. 25-43. 

Witkin, R. 1994. Art and Social Structure. Cambridge: Polity.

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