Mark Cantrell | Mushing and Music: Lessons in Leadership from Sled Dog Racing to The Florida Orchestra

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Mark Cantrell, President & CEO of The Florida Orchestra, shares his incredible journey as a musician, airline pilot, and sled dog racer, to ultimately leading the largest professional symphony orchestra in Florida. He offers insights on how these experiences helped him to think creatively and problem solve, and the importance for effective leaders to possess these abilities.

He also shares how The Florida Orchestra builds community and breaks down barriers, as well as how leaders succeed by putting their egos aside, surrounding themselves with great people, and doing what’s right for the organization.

The Florida Orchestra’s Impact: “The Florida Orchestra is recognized as Tampa Bay’s leading performing arts institution, the largest professional symphony orchestra in Florida, and one of the most vibrant, innovative orchestras in America. Through extraordinary musical performances, the orchestra has inspired the people of Tampa Bay for over 50 years, and serves as a leader and beacon for the musical arts throughout the state.”

The Arts as a Means to Unite a Community: “Our whole goal is to break down barriers. We can bring people together from very diverse parts of our community, to unite in peace and enjoy something beautiful. We’re such a divided people right now, and the beauty of the arts, whether it be music or live theatre or visual arts, it brings us together as human beings in a peaceful setting. It helps us to become one and to unite as opposed to divide.”

The Tampa Bay Community’s Giving Spirit: “We have fantastic patrons, donors, and sponsors. This is an incredibly caring and an incredibly giving community that values what we do, and the better we tell our story and the better we demonstrate to our community that we’re here for everyone, not just for us, the way better response we have from our patrons. If I help promote other non-profits that are doing great work, surprisingly enough, people respond in kind and give money to us. It’s not a competition, like they’re going to quit giving to The Florida Orchestra and give to somebody else. If anything, they just double down and give more.”

On Tampa’s Bright Future: “Tampa Bay has the ability to become the cultural capitol of the world. All of the pieces for that puzzle exist right now. We have amazing growth going on, a lot of money moving into the area, we have an incredibly vibrant and rich cultural scene that just wants to get better and better. If we can pull all of the right people together, within the arts world and in the business world and the community, and assemble that puzzle, we have an incredibly bright future sitting right here where we live.”

Lessons from Sled Dog Racing: “There was a lot with the [sled] dogs about, you know, you just don’t quit, and you find a way around. The only time that you quit is when there really is nothing left to do, and even then if you keep going, a lot of times you’ll find there is a solution to what you need.”

There is Always a Solution: “Never, ever quit. Never give up. It’s rare that there ever is not a solution. It may not be a solution that you like, but if you’re willing to be flexible and you’re willing to put your ego aside and you’re willing to do what’s right for the organization and surround yourself with great people on your team, you cannot help but succeed.”

Never Stop Learning: “Leadership, first and foremost, to me means an insatiable desire to learn, and to never stop learning. And when you’re learning, you’re flexible, because you’re always taking something that you can apply to your life.”

The Road to Success Starts with Putting Your Team First: “As the musher on the back of a sled, the dogs come absolutely first. If they’re not healthy, if they’re not happy, and they’re not well-fed, they’re not going anywhere and they will literally lay down on the trail and quit. So it’s always about taking care of others and putting the needs of others [first]. I do that here at The Florida Orchestra with our musicians and our staff. Their needs are more important than mine.”

What Being a Purpose-Driven Leader Means: “For me, great leaders are those that are here to serve the people that support them and work under them. And I think every organization, when you fulfill that purpose of serving others, you do well. And that starts at the top, when I’m here to help serve everyone else.”

What You Will Be Remembered For: “Making money and being successful is all great, but at the end of the day if you don’t have anything to truly be fulfilling, which is making a difference, what’s the point of having all that money or what’s the point of all that success, if you haven’t changed anyone’s life for the better?”


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