Lead Like a Great Conductor

“[A conductor's] 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.” —Itay Talgam


Many concertgoers are unaware of the critical role that the conductor plays during a performance.  Viewed on the podium, most of the conductors work is done in silence with a fluidly moving baton. Of course, much of the conductors work is done before the performance, behind-the-scenes.  The great conductors study, memorize, absorb the music, direct rehearsals and interpret a piece in a unique way, making their interpretation full of vitality and emotion. Each conductor is unique in how he or she moves on the podium, direct tempo, lead-ins and musical nuance.

The great conductors are able to transmit the emotional interpretation of a piece and help the musicians understand how to integrate the technical steps necessary to create that musical spirit in a performance, bringing the work to life. Each member of the orchestra responds to the conductor’s gestures and baton movements; they can pick up the cues, tension and passion.  When there’s synergy between the conductor and the musicians, there is the opportunity to create great music.

Israeli conductor Itay Talgam shares his fascinating perspective on an approach to leadership by examining the styles of great twentieth century conductors.   Talgam’s highlights some surprising characteristics that seem out of step with our traditional view of conductors and leadership in general. He poses the idea that an orchestra conductor faces the ultimate team-leadership challenge — producing precise harmony without saying a word.

Talgam admits that the success of a great orchestra is reliant on the orchestra musicians playing beautifully, but he also claims that a conductor’s role can make the difference between a good and a great performance. He refers to the orchestra and conductor relationship as a partnership; one where the conductor brings joy to the concert hall and elicits the best from his musicians. In doing so he helps enhance their performance and creates a spirited atmosphere in which they can thrive.

In Talgam’s view clear instructions and compliance from members of the orchestra is insufficient to make up the professional body of the orchestra. He explains that making great music requires:  communication, listening, rhythm, technique, preparation, improvisation, interpretation, rehearsal and performance. Some conductors (and managers) achieve compliance but destroy morale.

Talgam sites Riccardo Muti, who missed the mark when it came to motivating musicians. He was skillful at giving precise instructions and sanctions for cuing musicians but his overly controlling style was a turn off at best and offensive at worst to the musicians he led. In his perfectionist mindset, he believed that getting it absolutely right-trumped building joy in his team.

Muti may have been a “great conductor” for those who enjoy seeing perfect compliance between the conductor and the musicians. But having strong technical abilities and a didactic style of leadership failed to inspire the musicians to shine in a performance as he stifled them from adding any of their own interpretation of the music. He was essentially knocked off his pedestal when all 700 of the La Scala, Milan musical employees signed a letter asking him to resign saying “You’re a great conductor. We don’t want to work with you.  Please resign.”

Talgam also examined the contrasting style of Carlos Kleiber, who believed that great musicians perform best when the conductor doesn’t give clear instructions. He considered these instructions as “interfering” with the musicians’ innate abilities to manage themselves. He intentionally closed his eyes when conducting to force the musicians to rely on themselves more. In this way Kleiber says, “…the orchestra members listen to each other-this creates an ensemble”.  His gestures of the music open a space for musicians to put in another layer of interpretation. Kleiber gives loose instructions that may look like a rollercoaster but “it’s meant to encourage the musicians to become a partner in the ride”.  This he says is very exciting for those players and perhaps tiring but essential for making great music”.

Similarly, the great maestro Leonard Bernstein often just held a wide smile and used his happy eyes to show genuine joy in the orchestra’s interpretation. This was his way of offering praise for their great work with barely any instruction. He believed that if you truly love something, “you should give it away” and he reflected this sentiment in his conducting.

Talgam points out that when someone makes a mistake, a great conductor (and an effective manager) doesn’t assert his authority in a way that’s demeaning or condescending. Instead, if someone makes a mistake he offers a gentle critique and encourages him to get back on track in order to help him perform his best.  The astute manager, acting as a Meastro of his team, consistently catches his employees doing things right and then allows his team to “tell their own story”.  He recognizes the unique talent and individual gifts of each member in the group and helps the member find it in himself. He finds a way to highlight each person’s talents, downplay their vulnerabilities, boosts their strengths, and brings out their excellence.

Talgam’s training approach focuses on getting managers to help employees learn to draw on their strengths and rely on team members for cues and support. He says members should look to management for guidance only as a last resort. A great manager is like a skillful conductor; he reverses the control to of the output to his team. By giving employees autonomy and meaning for their work, he inspires them to perform their best. He gives away the authority to them showing trust in their abilities. The best conductors express their passion for the music by sharing it with others in the orchestra; they partner with musicians rather than force them to comply to detailed, specific cues.

Similarly, a great manager offers each person encouragement and support when necessary and then steps back allowing them the space to shine. A great manager expresses confidence in his team members by passing the baton to his team; he’s there if they need him for guidance but communicates that he trusts that they will ultimately find solutions to problems and develop innovations that advance the organization’s mission. This hands-off style of management has a profound psychological impact on employees. It garners their respect and motivates them to work harder to achieve their goals. Studies show that firms that adopt this strategy have higher productivity and lower employee turnover.

Great leaders and great conductors create an atmosphere that’s conducive to true collaboration. Their real power comes from their ability to give others power, inspiring each person to reach for excellence in an effort to achieve collective goals.

Itay Talgam offers a “Maestro program” http://www.talgam.com/designed to support a wide range of applications for corporate and conference groups. The Maestro Programs were founded on the belief that, in an orchestra and in the work place, music (like a business) has the power to create community and reinforce shared values. He says, “Music making embodies knowledge and innovation, individual effort and collective achievement, and offers a work environment that is full of opportunities for excellence and self-actualization –the same is true for any successful organization”.



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