Management by waving (sticks) around

The Globe and Mail apparently believes that conductors have something to teach the corporate world:

As a rookie conductor, Roger Nierenberg thought his job as leader was to tell people what to do.

But in 14 years as director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in Florida, he learned that being overly controlling is destined to turn brilliant performers into begrudging bit players.

“Leadership is really about listening and encouraging people to find their own creative way to perform,” says Mr. Nierenberg, now New York-based principal of an executive coaching company, the Music Paradigm.

“You can require obedience and force compliance with your directions, but you can’t mandate enthusiasm, creativity, fresh thinking or inspiration. If you value those, then people need to feel ownership of the work and the leader must cede some control,” Mr. Nierenberg explains…

In an orchestra, everyone knows the part they are supposed to be playing; business is less precise, because you have no set score, but many of the lessons that are taught by musical conducting have parallels in business, Mr. Nierenberg says in a new book,Maestro: A Surprising Story about Leading by Listening.

The idea that the relationship between orchestra and conductor is a good model for business is a meme that has taken in a lot of smart people, including the seminal business philosopher Peter Drucker. I don’t know why; it couldn’t be more opposite from the reality of our workplaces as orchestra musicians experience them.

First of all, it conflates three very different jobs that conductors do:  conducting, rehearsing, and supervision. The act of conducting has no analogue in the business world, or indeed in any other human activity that I’ve discovered. Coordinating the actions of one hundred people, all performing extraordinarily difficult physical and mental tasks, in real time, with nothing but movements, is certainly not what corporate executives do. The closest analogy to any other human activity is that of playing an instrument, except that, in this case, the instrument is actually 100 other people.

Rehearsing would appear on the surface to be closer to management, in that the performance of subordinates is analyzed, corrected, and brought into alignment both with the performance of other subordinates and with the leader’s vision of the final shape of the project. But, in reality, what conductors do in rehearsal is far more intrusive, “over the shoulder,” and controlling than what modern management theory would consider acceptable. And the relationship between conductor and musician is profoundly unequal in comparison with that of manager and subordinate. Conductors speak; musicians obey. There’s no fundamental taboo in business against subordinates disagreeing on even minor points with their bosses, as there is in ours. And in what business do senior line executives refer to the CEO as “Master?”

And no management theorist would approve of a supervisor having 100 direct reports. How could a supervisor directly supervise and evaluate the work of 100 people? It’s hard enough just to remember the names of that many people, much less responsibly manage and evaluate their work.

In fact, (and very fortunately for orchestras), most conductors have incorporated quite a lot of modern thinking on leadership into how they lead. Nowadays, most conductors (certainly most Music Directors) don’t insist, or even expect, to be called “Maestro.” The discussion at rehearsal between conductors and (at least) principals is not solely command and control; it can involve real collaboration of a kind that would have been incomprehensible to Toscanini, Szell or Fürtwangler. And unionization and the resulting job protections have made it hard for conductors to exercise the kind of tyrannical terminations that resulted, at least in part, in the lack of any personal relationship between a music director and most of the people in front of him.

But the basic problem is that practically no contemporary workplace displays the inherent structural imbalance between the near-control the conductor enjoys and the near-total lack of control the musicians experience. In a corporate setting, there are several levels of management below the CEO that do essentially the same kind of work the CEO does; meetings, travel, manipulation of ideas and symbols, or what has become known as “knowledge work.”  Someone three levels down in the organizational chart may not make decisions as final, or as critical, as the CEO – but they are generally making decisions autonomously.

What musicians do, by contrast is – follow the conductor, every moment of their working lives. What the conductor does is to control and direct the musicians, at every moment of every service, in every detail of the performance of their jobs.

This may be necessary for orchestras to function, and actually can work quite well, given conductors good enough to know what to do with that control. But the idea that it’s a good model for leadership in general is simply laughable.

On the other hand, perhaps we can get the Chinese to believe it and thus delay the onset of Chinese global hegemony for a few more years.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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