GILD 2013: Leadership lessons from a well-tuned orchestra

By Rory Cellucci on October 8, 2013

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As everyone streams into the room for Roger Nierenberg’s talk, the crowd looks a little different. Several folks are carrying violins. You can hear an oboe playing at the front of the room. And then a French horn. It starts to feel less like a hotel ballroom and more like a symphony hall. But unlike a traditional concert hall, the musicians aren’t sitting in front of the audience; rather they are sitting among them. Roger, the creator of the Music Paradigm, has placed us in the middle of a live orchestra. As he said, “to be in sound is a delicious place.” And it truly is. But with the powerful music come powerful lessons.

Using Mozart’s Symphony No. 34, Roger showed that an orchestra is a system–much like an organization is a system–and that what makes a good conductor is also what makes a good leader. But “showed” is perhaps the incorrect word, because we didn’t see it, we heard it. As he changed his leadership style–and deliberately made some common conducting mistakes to make a point–we could hear how it affected the overall performance of the orchestra.

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Roger Nierenberg conducting a symphony orchestra at GILD13.

An orchestra is like a business–and the Conductor has a unique vantage point

An orchestra is a siloed organization. Some instruments are blown, some are struck, and others require a bow. Each takes a certain expertise. But individual talent isn’t enough. Being a genius on your instrument isn’t sufficient to make the orchestra succeed. The relationship with the other musicians in the orchestra is critical. They must all work together …in concert. And the conductor has a unique vantage point. From his place at the podium, he can see and hear all of the silos. He is in the best position to understand the “information” his team is giving him and to make decisions to meet the vision for the performance. Every organization has a podium–it’s the place where you can see the big picture and where strategic decisions are made. The thing is, the musicians who are sitting at the periphery don’t see and hear what the conductor does–just like many workers may not see what the leader sees because of the nature of their individual roles and responsibilities. So, the conductor needs to understand the view from each chair and communicate to that reality to help employees understand their role in the vision.

Here are a few lessons we heard:

  • It’s a System, not a Machine. If you view the orchestra as a machine, such as a clock, then the baton is the mainspring. It can change the tempo, making it easy to believe that the conductor is causing everything to happen. But when the orchestra plays without a conductor, it’s clear that they are perfectly capable of playing well on their own. The musicians are intelligent and make decisions and adjustments while knowing how to act as a cohesive unit. The key is not to instruct the players on what they already know how to do, but rather to leverage their abilities by giving a clear signal of what the outcome should be.
  • Teamwork Matters. Musicians know that a successful performance requires teamwork. For example, the first violins must synchronize the angles of their bows. To the audience, it may look like a higher intelligence has taken over, but it’s really teamwork. They are connected and no one individual stands out. Even when the direction changes, they continue to make decisions spontaneously while staying in sync.
  • The Whole Is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts. Sometimes you get a boring assignment. For example, in one passage, the French horns have just one long, sustained note. When you look at the individual contributions, the other instruments seem to have the more “interesting” parts. But that “boring” note is what gives the melody its shape and depth–it creates a sense of expectancy that is characteristic of that passage. You have to see the whole system to get it and the conductor has to make that obvious to the entire orchestra.
  • Having the baton does not guarantee good leadership. If you have the vision, but aren’t actively engaged with the sound, the musicians will be lost because they need that feedback loop of the sound. Using the baton to tell musicians what to do on every single note makes them feel constrained, even if you don’t mean to be overbearing. Conducting as if the orchestra is a machine–treating it like you are hitting the different parts with a checklist–distracts and disengages to the musicians. The conductor has the capacity to work across the silos and to innovate, but he has to cede some control while giving a clear signal of what the performance–the outcome–should be.

In the end, in orchestras and in businesses, the proof is in the performance. Here’s a short sound byte.

Have these insights struck a chord for you? Sound off in the comments below.

Posted in Blog

About Rory Cellucci

Rory Cellucci is passionate about advancing women leaders.
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