Music Making and Business Leadership

Studying leadership is a very elusive undertaking. Understanding business leadership seems to be governed by the Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty: "The more precisely the POSITION is determined, the less precisely the MOMENTUM is known."

So, what is left to do for the student in business leadership, other than apprenticeship? HBR and its likes do a good job at giving one angles. Yet, few such proxies come as close to offering a meaningful metaphor about business leadership as music making. For my taste, of organization and music, jazz and classical will do. Let us proceed with some illustrations.

Take the case of a conductor. When dealing with a symphony, the conductor resembles very much your typical CEO. The metaphor changes when the conductor deals with a concert; the interplay with the soloist(s) becomes like the interaction between the CEO and the board or the CEO and a powerful president (of the board maybe.) Claudio Abbado, Herbert Karajan, and Sergiu Celibidache are just three examples of conductors--soft-, autocratic-, all encompassing-leadership, respectively.

With chamber music, you deal with a type of leadership from within. This is the case with consulting partnerships or teams with people at about the same levels of authority and experience. Dependence path is everything here.

In jazz, there are also a few models. The whole idea behind jazz--improvisation, swing, spontaneity, creativity on the move, etc.--corresponds nicely to the smaller entities (e.g. start-ups, workgroups.) Leadership in jazz comes in a few flavors. For example, Miles Davis is the all might and power derived from the authority of his knowledge and creativity. This type knows when and why to come in strongly or let things evolve on their own. John Coltrane is the ever present leader, almost a factotum of the group. This is the type that is all about his idea and ways of doing things. They turn ideas into start-ups. Mingus on the other hand is the type of leadership the exercises authority from behind, he's there only for those who know where/how to listen, he's the ultimate enabler. Jazz epitomizes, musically, the task oriented ad-hoc teams.

Obviously, chamber music and jazz usually offer metaphors applicable to smaller teams whose membership is similar in skills and culture.

For illustrations, have a look at the myriad of DVD's on musical subjects. Especially valuable, one is likely to find those that explain the mechanics of conducting by taking the viewer through a rehearsal. Click here to find a link to a wealth of sources on: Conductors and music making, as leadership metaphors!

Enjoy, and happy session-jamming out of Heisenberg-types of uncertainty!

2 comments:

Bob Greenberg said...

The CEO as Maestro
Bob Greenberg

For your average concertgoer, a symphony orchestra would appear to be a hundred tuxedo-clad penguins cheerfully, even mindlessly, sawing away at the whim of the conductor. In truth, just beneath the collaborative surface of an orchestra lies an incredible amalgam of cliques, competing interests, rivalries, and personality conflicts—exacerbated by the fact that the musicians chronically believe they’re underpaid and unappreciated.

In other words, the symphony is like any organization in the world of business.

How an orchestra becomes a well-oiled musical machine has much to tell us about teamwork, responsibility, accountability, and, most importantly, leadership in the corporate environment.


At the top of the orchestral food chain is the conductor, the chief executive, the boss with the sauce. Be they dictatorial autocrats or collaborative pussycats, all great conductors command the respect of their organizations. That respect is bred of knowledge, vision, charisma, will, and emotion. Every great conductor is a psychologist and a motivator par excellence; these “leaders of the band” have something to teach us all.

Although the conductor’s role seems perfectly natural to us, before 1800 most orchestras didn’t require an independent conductor. Ensembles were small, and the beat was steady, so players could play their parts without moment-to-moment direction. During the early 1800s, though, orchestral music grew more complex, and orchestral leadership was entrusted to an independent “conductor.” By the 20th century, the number and variety of instruments and the stratification within a typical orchestra had become nothing short of remarkable.

The orchestra—the beast with a hundred heads—consists of four essential instrumental divisions: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Within each, there are further divisions of musical roles—and a pecking order. For instance, in the strings, the double basses provide the foundation of the orchestra—a crucial, but almost never glamorous, role. The cellos help provide the foundation but also, with their rich, gorgeous sound, get to play important thematic melodies. The violas play inner voices and accompaniments but rarely receive notice. The violins fancy themselves the aristocracy of the orchestra, playing the main thematic melodies, with their feet planted firmly on the shoulders and faces of the other strings. Even within the violins, there are two divisions: first violins and second violins. The distinction is enormous. Dare we be cruel? The first violins consider the second violins as also-rans, wannabes, eternal bridesmaids, the Miss Havishams of the orchestra—relegated, by definition, to playing second fiddle to the first violins.

How does a conductor, a mere human (although don’t tell that to your average conductor!), keep this unruly mob from killing him or each other—let alone entice them to make beautiful music together?

The baton is the most obvious manifestation of authority. With it, the conductor starts and stops the orchestra and helps it keep time. But the baton is, in reality, nothing but a tool. Genuine authority comes from the eyes, the body. It comes from the conductor’s passion for and obvious knowledge of the music. It comes from his vision of the meaning of the music, and from his emotions. If the baton is a stick, then the conductor’s charisma is the carrot.

Great conductors don’t just beat time. They inspire their players. Some, such as Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein, were physical leaders, whose bodies and emotions swept orchestras into following their lead, often ecstatically. Other leaders, such as Arturo Toscanini and Otto Klemperer, were old-style autocrats, brooking no argument, ruling with an iron fist. Still others, such as Thomas Beecham and Sergiu Celibidache, inspired with a combination of humor and gentle insistence.

Many conductors woo their orchestras. When Bernstein first appeared before the Vienna Philharmonic in 1966, it was a delicate moment. Bernstein, an American Jew, was conducting an orchestra that had been closely associated with the Third Reich. Bernstein addressed the orchestra in German, asking for its patience and support. He then conducted the orchestra with a passion that enthralled the ordinarily stiff Viennese musicians. His relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic surpassed even his work with the New York Philharmonic; the recordings that Bernstein and Vienna made in the 1970s and 1980s are classics.

What Bernstein achieved—what many great conductors achieve—is a seeming paradox. He managed to convince his players they were free to innovate and express themselves, while convincing them to accept his vision for the music and to follow his direction. When that happens, the results can be magical. When it doesn’t, well, we won’t name names, but many a conductor-orchestra relationship has been fatally wounded by a lack of respect on one side of the podium or the other.

Now, it’s possible to carry the conductor metaphor too far. Many of the compositions conductors perform are masterworks—a claim few chief executives would make, no matter how fond they are of their strategists. Also, business plans change in ways musical compositions don’t.

Nevertheless, a conductor must be accountable to the score—the composer’s vision (the “founding vision,” if you prefer)—in much the way a chief executive must be responsible to the essential vision and mission of his company. Both conductors and senior executives also are finding that, while great leadership is required, the form that leadership takes is changing.

In both cases, the dictatorial style of leadership is being replaced by a more conciliatory, collaborative style. While it used to be possible for a senior executive (or a conductor) to just issue an order and expect to have it carried out, today’s flattened organizations may not allow that approach because there is so much less managerial supervision than there used to be. Besides, with demand for talent so strong, employees will walk out the door if they feel they don’t have sufficient room to maneuver. As jobs become more specialized, it will, in fact, be harder for a boss to tell a subordinate exactly what to do—in the same way a conductor couldn’t possibly show a French horn player how to coax a note from her instrument. Time constraints also are becoming more severe. Business organizations no longer can wage long internal battles before making decisions. The integral parts of organizations have to be able to coordinate their activities as instantaneously and smoothly as do the instrumental divisions of an orchestra.

So, Bernstein and Solti may be the correct metaphors for today’s executive. Top managers will find themselves leading less with the stick and more with their vision, their knowledge, and their emotions. Such leaders will allow each person to feel he has the power to express himself, without ever surrendering their own power, their vision, or their responsibility.


Greenberg is a composer and professor of music at the San Francisco Conservatory.

Anonymous said...

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