Leadership Lessons from Great Conductors

Itay Talgam
Is it possible to create perfect harmony without saying a word?

Conductor Itay Talgam illustrates how by analyzing the body language and styles of six great 20th-century conductors, starting with a small gesture:

And suddenly, out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music.

And this is fantastic. And it's so tempting to think that it's all about me. All those great people here, virtuosos, they make noise, they need me to do that.

Not really. If it were that, I would just save you the talk, and teach you the gesture. So you could go out to the world and do this thing in whatever company or whatever you want, and you have perfect harmony. It doesn't work.

After watching the first video of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform, Talgam says:

what about the conductor? What can you say the conductor was doing, actually? He was happy.

And I often show this to senior management. People get annoyed. "You come to work. How come you're so happy?" Something must be wrong there, yeah? But he's spreading happiness. And I think the happiness, the important thing is this happiness does not come from only his own story and his joy of the music. The joy is about enabling other people's stories to be heard at the same time.

You have the story of the orchestra as a professional body. You have the story of the audience as a community. Yeah. You have the stories of the individuals in the orchestra and in the audience. And then you have other stories, unseen. People who build this wonderful concert hall. People who made those Stradivarius, Amati, all those beautiful instruments. And all those stories are being heard at the same time. This is the true experience of a live concert.

The second style represented by Riccardo Muti is at the opposite end of the spectrum from joy — a very commanding, kind of bossy actually, definitely clear. It works to a certain point:

Three years ago he got a letter signed by all 700 employees of La Scala, musical employees, I mean the musicians, saying, "You're a great conductor. We don't want to work with you. Please resign."

"Why? Because you don't let us develop. You're using us as instruments, not as partners. And our joy of music.

Herbert von Karajan is another extreme. He doesn't look at the musicians.

even the Berlin Philharmonic doesn't know when to play. But I'll tell you how they do it. No cynicism. This is a German orchestra, yes? They look at Karajan. And then they look at each other. "Do you understand what this guy wants?" And after doing that, they really look at each other, and the first players of the orchestra lead the whole ensemble in playing together.

The eyes closed because the music is in his head, and the orchestra has to guess it.
Unlike Lenny Bernstein, who always started from the meaning. In the video:

you can see the music on his face. You can see the baton left his hand. No more baton. Now it's about you, the player, telling the story. Now it's a reversed thing. You're telling the story. And you're telling the story. And even briefly, you become the storyteller to which the community, the whole community, listens to. And Bernstein enables that.

What do great conductors and leaders have in common?

  1. They develop their talent and teams first
  2. They avoid becoming the limiting force of the organization — authority is not enough to make people our partners
  3. They connect people to the process — and create the conditions in the world in which the process takes place

Watch the full TED talk for an entertaining demonstration.

The conductor who recognizes he doesn't need to make a sound can focus on making other people powerful. There is power in collaboration. This is a lesson out of Ben Zander's playbook.

“The conductor doesn't make a sound,” says Zander. “He depends for his power on the ability of other people to make him powerful.” He realized then that his job was to awaken possibility in other people.

Zander has a practice in his class that he follows to help his students. At the beginning of the year, he gives everyone an “A.” He then asks his students to write a letter dated at the end of the year explaining why they got an A. He says, “What happens when you give an A is the relationship is transformed.”

Here's Zander with his closing remarks at Davos World Economic Forum in 2008.

For a deeper dive in making room for creativity practices in all human endeavors, I recommend The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Roz Zander and Ben Zander.



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