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Leadership secrets from a maestro

Roger Nierenberg
Roger Nierenberg is a conductor and creator of The Music Paradigm. He is also the author of Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to conduct a word-class professional orchestra?

For the seasoned maestro it can feel like the ultimate dream come true. During the performance the orchestra seems to read your mind, knowing exactly how you'd wish to shape this phrase or pace that crescendo. The musicians' collective skill instantly serves up the very sound you just imagined. They respond with an amazing unity to the subtlest motions of your baton, the slightest movements of your hands, and even to your unconscious facial expressions.

It takes many years, however, to master that complex and delicate relationship between maestro and orchestra. For the inexperienced conductor standing on the podium, it can be a lonely and isolated experience. If he looks to the musicians for any support or encouragement he will find none. They have, after all, spent a lifetime of practicing to play as perfectly as they can. The same perfectionism that served them so well in honing their own skills is inevitably focused on the conductor. The musicians long for a leader as skilled in his craft of conducting as they are in their craft of instrument-playing.

So what does a young conductor need to know as she steps steps up the podium, looking out at all those expectant, demanding faces? What I've learned from years of conducting symphony orchestras and working with business leaders is that a maestro and an executive face very similar challenges. Therefore, what helps on the podium can help in the corner office.

Have a clear and vibrant vision for your people's success

Leaders who have not yet done the hard work of imagining a best-case scenario for their organizations will inevitably default to leading through correction and criticism. But when your highest priority is developing the right goals and strategy, you will spend most of your time inspiring people about them and guiding them towards successful achievement.

Listen carefully to your people

A maestro listens "microscopically" to the orchestra. She uses the special perspective of her podium to take in both the big picture and the relevant details. In her imagination she juxtaposes the reality of the orchestra's playing with her best-case vision of how they might sound. Subtracting one from the other shows the crucial gap she needs to narrow or even eliminate. Armed with this knowledge she can focus the organization's attention on those few crucial points.

Translate your agenda into directions that can easily be understood and executed by the players.

It is a major accomplishment to devise the right goals, but that is no guarantee they will be achieved. Only your workforce can accomplish that, and the leader and the worker will have vastly different understandings of the vision. The leader's understanding is based on the pressing strategic needs, as seen from the podium. The worker's view is shaped by the chair he occupies, where the big-picture view of the organization is very much in the distant background. So the leader needs to translate the vision so that it makes sense from every chair. The workforce cannot act effectively until the leader expresses directions and assignments in the language they understand.

It's not about you. It's about how the orchestra sounds under your direction.

It's very easy for a conductor to personalize the orchestra's behavior and see it as reflection on him or his abilities. But the orchestra is not nearly so concerned with what a conductor does or says as they are with how they sound. Therefore sharpen your focus on simply getting the best results, and don't get distracted by interpersonal dynamics.

Yes, a symphony orchestra is a unique workforce, one more focused on aesthetic perfection than bottom-line profits. But in the harmony of the maestro-orchestra relationship, there are many lessons for leaders who listen.

By Roger Nierenberg

 |  October 26, 2009; 10:07 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The discipline of not being all things to all people | Next: Starting her leadership journey in a Baltimore classroom


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I work in this area and see what you are talking about regularly. You are right: it is a wonderful sight. In order to stay at that level, a leader must be prepared to work hard and be given the opportunity by the organization to have ongoing development.

In my recent book on leadership called Sex in the Boardroom I identify many examples where the symphony was playing beautifully and the results are there for all to see.

Posted by: IBCoaching | November 1, 2009 2:35 AM

I do like this orchestra analogy. I always have. It implies "gifts differing" and collaboration and creativity rather than totalitarian hierarchy and mindless conformity as the best model for institutional success.

But I do agree with the commentator who says it's helpful when everyone is "on the same page".

In other words, it is key that if you ask someone to join an orchestra or even to conduct it, you explain to the candidate what the requirements and goals of the position are, and what the risks are that he or she is being asked to help steer the orchestra away from. Otherwise, it's like expecting someone to conduct an unknown work without even the benefit of a score.

(Kind of like those musicians' nightmares about finding oneself trying to play a concert with an umbrella instead of a fiddle bow, waking up just as one is wondering in the dream, "I wonder if the audience is noticing?...")

Not to mention all the jokes about conductors [e.g., "Why did the orchestra get lost in the last movement? Some s o b looked up!", or, "Fourth horn, you're flat! Fourth horn? ...what, he's not even here yet? Well, tell him when he gets here!" And then there's the story of the Conducting St. Bernard who conducted, miraculously, with his tail... In the middle of the concert, another, older, greyer St. Bernard approached the podium. The music stopped, the two St. Bernards put their heads together, and then the young conductor St. Bernard followed the older St. Bernard off the stage and out of the concert hall. "What just happenned? asked one concert-goer? "Ah, that was his mother", replied another, "She finally convinced him he should become a doctor!" ]

...not to mention jokes about the critics... [No, Sir Critic, I will NOT fight you in a duel, because if I were even to scratch my little finger, then I would be unable to conduct properly, whereas you, Sir Critic, could get your entire head blown off and still write reviews!]

Posted by: TQWoods | October 26, 2009 10:54 AM

The business world seems forever to be searching for new metaphors for the task of managing an office--symphony conducting, combat, Outward Bound, sports, sitting in a circle playing drums, etc. I guess it's because there's nothing sexy about getting the job done at the office, it's apparently necessary to jazz it up with all these strained analogies to things that are more interesting. Of course the themes will change fairly regularly over time because there's no real similarity between playing Beethoven, rock climbing, etc., and timely getting out orders for widgets, so the analogies don't have much staying power. I say this as a witness to the ever-changing parade of management seminarists brought in to my workplace to inspire "the troops". The only theme that seems to remain constant through this flavor-of-the-month management hoopla is the inflation of managers to "Leaders". I'd rather hear about how management is going to reward everyone with a raise, how they're going to stop trying to squeeze extra work out of everyone with yet more overtime, and how they've learned to increase the bottom line through something other than layoffs and doubling-up of workloads on remaining employees. If they'd do this, I'd be happy to call them Leaders, Chief Potentates, Grand Poobahs, Czars, whatever, and performs a weekly Polynesian fire dance in their honor.

Posted by: alloleo | October 26, 2009 9:59 AM

That is good stuff. However I have learned through the years you can have the best plans and people agree in principle, concept and practice. Invariably there are those who are reading from a different sheet of music and they don't play loud so the conductor or the musicians can hear it, just enough it throws the rest of the performers out of sync.

Everybody needs to be on the same page and everyone works for the orchestra, otherwise you will churn out nothing short of ordinary. To be the best, you have to create the best conditions. Not necessarily the best people have to be employed, but everyone has to be on the same page. Thanks for the article.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | October 26, 2009 9:31 AM

I loved reading this because it explains why so many businesses are dysfunctional and why so many people hate their jobs. We can't all be concert music masters, but the part about making sense to the person in the chair really hit home.

Posted by: mtborah | October 26, 2009 6:32 AM

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