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Leadership lessons from the Conductor’s podium

December 1, 2014

I recently won two tickets to a concert for a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but was unable to go, so passed them onto a good friend. I was really disappointed, as although only two movements were completed, Schubert’s eighth symphony stands as one of the greatest, and strangest, of the genre and it’s my favourite piece of classical music.

When Schubert began writing his symphony in B minor in the autumn of 1822, the 25-year-old Viennese composer was charting new musical terrain. Instead of trying to take Beethoven on at his own game of dynamism, dialectic, and confrontation, Schubert found in the music he completed for this B minor symphony a way of shaping time and tonality that no other symphonic composer up to this point had managed.

In terms of the history of the symphony, this music is unprecedented. What we know today as Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is the two movements, an Allegro moderato and Andante con moto. Why didn’t Schubert write more of the symphony? The reasons can only be guesswork: whether they’re psychological, connected to the period of illness he went through; musical, in the sense of not feeling he could compose another two movements that would satisfactorily complement the new symphonic dramaturgy of the two completed ones; or simply practical, that having put the piece to one side, he wanted to get on with new projects rather than return to older music?

Whatever the reason, it all conspired to mean that the Unfinished Symphony wasn’t premiered until forty years later, 1865 in Vienna – when it would still have sounded ahead of its time. ‘Unfinished’ it may be in a strictly four-movement structural sense, but this B minor symphony is a complete, essential, and mysterious symphonic experience.

However, having extolled the virtues of the piece to my friend, although she wasn’t a classical music fan and didn’t understand its technical musical construction, Schubert as an individual or the background to the piece of music in Schubert’s repertoire, she was looking forward to the performance.

A couple of days later, I asked her if she had enjoyed the performance, and instead of a few plausible comments and ‘I had a good night out’, I received the following email:

  • For considerable periods, the four oboe players had nothing to do. Their number should be reduced and their work should be spread over the whole orchestra, thus eliminating unwarranted resources and peaks of inactivity.
  • All of the twelve violins were playing identical notes. This seemed unnecessary duplication and the staff of this section should be cut drastically. If a large sound is really required this could be obtained through an electronic amplifier.
  • Much effort was absorbed in the playing of demi-quavers. This seems an excessive refinement and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded up to the nearest semi-quaver in my view. If this were done, it would be possible to use trainees and lower grade operators and also reduce the time taken to complete the entire symphony.
  • No real purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been played by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated the concert could be reduced from two hours to twenty minutes.
  • On the night, the conductor seemed to spend more time simply smiling and flapping his arms, oozing self-belief elevated on the podium and enjoying the power of a dictator. He seemed to be nothing more than a timekeeper and showman, gestures and emoting for the crowd – who seemed to love him! I got no sense of why the conductor was needed, surely as professional musicians they all know their parts, so you can do away with the conductor and save money?

If Schubert had attended to these matters he would probably have been able to finish his symphony after all.

Wow! I thought. A blind man on a galloping horse can appreciate the context of the piece, and surely everyone appreciates the role of the conductor? They are the leader of the orchestra, she misses the value of music: music washes away the dust of everyday life from the soul, because after silence, music comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible.

Her response set me thinking, particularly her comments about the conductor. The role of the conductor is crucial to the performance of an orchestra. A great musical experience cannot be created simply by getting the notes right. While orchestras can play unaided, it is helpful if someone can follow a score and beat time clearly.

Whilst the only person on stage who doesn’t make a sound, most of their work takes place before they ever meet up with an orchestra – studying, exploring and analysing the music, seeking to understand the composer’s vision. The conductor prepares their interpretation, but with the great conductors ‘the performance’ only happens at the concert.

Conductors know that what they bring to their performances is the difference between competence and inspiration. It diminishes and completely misunderstands great music-making not to think there is any difference between the two.

Conductors also know that if they manage musicians with respect, as well as help shape a performance, so much the better. There are some who achieve this, whose passion is inspiring, whose insights provoke, reveal, or enhance. And there are a few who are great. They are usually the ones who place themselves wholly at the service of the music, who make working for them feel like a joyful, collaborative experience.

But how much difference does the average conductor make? Music, given players sufficiently accomplished, speaks for itself. Even in the case of the talented maestros, the skills on offer are subject to an indefinable alchemy of charisma and self-belief.

Conducting an orchestra can be a model for leadership, according to Itay Talgam, the authority on orchestra and leadership. An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: to create pure harmony without muttering a word says Talgam, A conductor out of the chaos can create order. Noise becomes music. Check out his TED talk:

Talgam describes the conductor as someone who allows each musician to express himself freely, yet takes full control to ensure nothing goes wrong, but if it does, gently redirects him back to the right path, ensuring harmony prevails in his orchestra. According to Talgam, the best orchestra conductor understands his people, allows them to develop, treats them with respect, and yet gently nudges them towards the goal of making beautiful music

Like an orchestra conductor, being a leader within an organisation bears the same challenges trying to create co-ordination and harmony among the different variables in your business to ensure your organisation creates value for customers. As a leader, you might have a strategy as well written as a Mozart symphony, but if your orchestra is not well conducted, then noise will prevail over music.

So, what are the leadership parallels which we can learn from an orchestra conductor for business? Here’s my summary of leadership traits from an orchestra conductor:

Vision Great conductors always start with the musical score and a clear musical vision of how it should sound. Only then do they attempt to recreate their plan, their interpretation and translate this into how they wish the orchestra to play. It’s this art of listening and reacting in the moment that makes for a great conductor, hearing the vision of the composer and creating a strategy to deliver the great piece.

Passion Great conductors lead with their heart and are passionate about their work. Are you passionate about the vision of your organisation? Do you lead with passion and conviction? The leaders’ passion is infectious and generally seeps through the organisation. Great conductors attract great players. Mediocre conductors attract mediocre players. The very best players want to work for the very best conductors. Like attracts like.

Self-awareness A conductor is aware of their gestures and impact. They have to be precise or their musicians will not be able to follow. Everything done is intentional. Are you an intentional leader? A conductor can’t afford to make an unintentional gesture. Everything means something. The flick of the wrist, the raising of an eyebrow, and the closing of the eyes all have meaning. A good conductor can’t afford to be careless with his public demeanour – neither can a leader.

Focus The conductor focuses on his task and keeps his back to the audience. Great leaders similarly keep their mind’s eye on things they are facing rather than worry about what is being said or done behind them. Steve Jobs is a definitive example of keeping his back to the audience. He didn’t care about what people wanted; he made products that would delight his audience.

Visibility The conductor stands on a podium and is visible to each member of his orchestra. This is to ensure the orchestra stays in alignment. Are you a leader who is visible to your people at all times, or are you not spending time with your teams and causing misalignment across the business? Set high expectations of yourself will ensure others follow and aspire too.

Communication A conductor has to be extremely clear with his baton, hands, and verbal instructions in order to communicate exactly how he wants an orchestra to perform. All leaders need to be obsessed with the flow of clear communication between them and their followers. Without good, secure, clear lines of communication, the team will break down.

Motivation Conductors get the best out of their people at the right time, they ensure their musicians feel significant, accepted and secure. They respect the talent and create the conditions to ensure each player can give of his or her best. A conductor needs his musicians, likewise, a leader needs his followers and needs to take time to develop his followership.

Culture A critical aspect of effective leadership involves working collaboratively. Musical maestros know instinctively that ‘none of us is as smart as all of us’, but they need the conductor to instil a collaborative culture where everyone pushes towards creating and executing wonderful music — and by and large, not fighting over personal success. The members are working for the combined good and mutual benefit of the team as a whole.

Nurturing Orchestra members are not really given any instructions, but the forces of the process itself keep them in place. That’s what the conductor does. What can be a rollercoaster of delivering a performance does not really exist. It’s not a physical thing. It’s in the players’ heads. The conductor has the plan in his head. He knows what to do even if he is not actually playing, his role is in building the rollercoaster as he actually takes the ride with the orchestra, nurturing the players.

Teamship Great conductors share the spotlight, it’s not all about them. When a concert is over, and the audience is clapping, the conductor turns to the audience and takes a bow, but then immediately turn to their orchestra, inviting them to stand and take the limelight. Without his orchestra, the conductor is nothing. Do you share your organisation successes with your team? Are you a leader that gives credit back to the team?

Practice The conductor leads rehearsals to ensure an outstanding performance is delivered at the concert. The best concerts are well rehearsed no matter how great the conductor is. It’s about his own practice too. Likewise in business, practice makes perfect. Are you practising your leadership? Or do you assume that you will automatically produce great leadership ‘music’ without practice?

Leadership Great conductors lead. Most musicians in the orchestra are much more talented that the conductor, experts in their musical instruments. They look to their conductor not for technical advice but for leadership. The same happens in organisations, most leaders are not functional or technical experts, most employees look up to them for leadership. They need to inspire, create excitement, have a clear vision and lead. Are you a leader?

The fragments of the scherzo intended as the third movement in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony are preserved in full score, but the entire rest of the scherzo proper (both strains) only in short score. Only the first strain of the trio exists, and that as a mere unadorned, unharmonized single melodic line. The second strain is entirely absent. This abbreviated structure alone has captivated the listening public to consider it as one of Schubert’s most cherished compositions.

But however great a musical composition is, it needs an orchestra to bring it to life. An orchestra is an organisation, the conductor it’s leader. The thrilling moment at the start of a classical concert happens on the podium. The conductor makes a small, understated gesture, and swiftly, out of the disorder comes order. Noise becomes music. It’s the same for business, the leader may have a vision, a purpose, a strategy, but without leading the team with the virtues identified about, it’s all simply noise.

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