What Marching Band Teaches Us About Shaping Culture

A Dean's Note from Prabu David

For Brian O’Connor, joining the MSU band was a childhood dream. Growing up in St. Johns, he would seize every opportunity to see the band perform. He would even come to campus to watch the band practice. And his dream came true in 1986 when he became a drum major in his sophomore year at MSU. That dream turned into a magical experience as he led MSU’s marching band in the Rose Bowl in 1988.

Today, Brian O’Connor is vice president for communication at Princess Cruises, and in a few weeks, he will be leading his company’s communication efforts to launch a new cruise ship, which costs nearly a billion dollars.

This was a special homecoming for Brian and alumni of the Spartan Marching Band, who celebrated the band's 150th anniversary. When I met with Brian, I sensed real joy as he recounted his experiences from his days on the band some 30 years ago and lessons he learned about leadership.

Though we may recognize the band and root for them, few of us understand the deep commitment among band members and the rigors of their training. Talent, discipline, and practice are expected, as in any walk of life. But the gravitational tug of the band may be hard to understand. For students like Brian, it is an essential part of their identity. “I came to be in the band, not for what I wanted to study,” said Brian.

The drive to be part of the marching band is illustrated in this story that Brian told me. When he served as an intern, he had an opportunity to meet their CEO, Carl Mottek of Hilton Hotels. Mottek, also an MSU alumnus, told Brian “Young man, you have accomplished something I have always wanted to do.” That Mottek would place a high value on being a drum major at MSU has stuck with Brian.

In a campus like ours, the band is a refreshing oddity because it does not celebrate individual heroes. Other sports like football or basketball, despite their commitment to team success, rely on star players whose names are widely known. With the band, however, the members remain nameless. Despite the anonymity, they strive for collective success, epitomizing team spirit.

Let’s not underestimate the competition involved in being selected as a member of a major university band. Members vie for key positions, such as drum major. Yet, bands nurture a rare sense of social cohesion, which most organizations strive for. Years after graduation, band members return to play in the alumni band to experience the thrill of being part of something big and unique.

Current research in organizational behavior suggests that intrinsic motivation and social cohesion are key to organizational success, and bands appear to nurture these attributes through a culture that focuses on collective success.

In a world where recognition is measured by “likes” and individual success, organizations and leaders yearn for a formula to build esprit de corps. Instead of looking to successful coaches or winning athletes, there is a lot to learn from the anonymous members of a marching band. Instead of a cult of heroes, which is the dominant model these days, the marching band epitomizes an alternative model of team spirit that is sorely needed.

Watch this video to meet Brian O'Connor and hear about his inspirational journey from Spartan Stadium to Los Angeles.