Smart Moves: Listen to the music makers

Persuading 100 talented, opinionated musicians to play exactly the way a conductor wishes takes sophisticated leadership skills, as managers are discovering. By Philip Schofield
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It is a tough challenge, directly managing a team of five to 10 people. To get them to share your sense of purpose, to fire and sustain their enthusiasm, to co-ordinate their efforts and to remedy their weaknesses, you need to be a strong leader. Imagine then the huge challenge of conducting 100 talented individuals in a world-class orchestra.

Managers are now starting to look at what they can learn from leaders in the music world. Last October, Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, spoke on "orchestrating the executive team" at the annual conference of the Institute of Personnel and Development. Last month Dr Robert Greenberg, professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, gave a keynote address on the orchestra as a model of leadership, teamwork and accountability to the Human Resource Development Week conference.

A new book, Leadership: Sharing The Passion, by international consultant Jan R Jonassen (Management Pocketbooks pounds 9.99) develops the theme. Based on interviews with 15 world-class conductors in 1997, the author observes: "There is no leadership challenge in the world greater than that of being the conductor of a major symphony orchestra, needing to generate the highest possible levels of excellence in the most competitive environment imaginable.

"The unique challenge of leading an orchestra is that of communicating your particular vision to a group of 100 talented, opinionated individuals, among the most expert internationally in their field. The standards you are being measured against are not just those of today, but of the great performances of all time. If you fail, you fail publicly."

He found that conductors have a strong and profound passion for their work. They also make systematic use of leadership tools and practices in support of that passion.

Leaders first have to create the right framework by having a clear, communicated and understood purpose; a set of commonly used values; a degree of discipline towards an operating system, and the habit of good preparation. He quotes Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, on the importance of values:

"If you ask people to develop certain values, you first of all have to do it yourself. If I ask for discipline, I have to be disciplined. If I expect people to be prepared, I have to be prepared so the main thing is to work hard yourself and hope that people will follow and understand that this is the way to achieve something."

However, managers make mistakes and nobody expects them to be the perfect leader. Iona Brown, artistic director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and music director of the Norwegian and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras, stresses the need for honesty. "I know some people who are incapable of saying they are sorry or admitting when they are wrong - and that doesn't gain respect from players. Respect comes from the truth. I think honesty is the most disarming and powerful thing. Of course I prefer not to make mistakes but I don't fear admitting I'm wrong."

On the importance of focus and communication, Sir Neville Marriner, founder and musical director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, observes: "It's no good having opinions about music. You have to have convictions. If the conductor has convictions and is able to transmit those convictions to the orchestra, then they will collaborate."

According to Paavo Jarvi, principal guest conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: "The majority of musicians will force the minority to take the right path. You don't influence the masses, you influence the person who influences the masses. In every orchestra you can immediately pick up on four or five people who are front-runners - and if you can get them on your side you will soon have the rest of the orchestra with you."

Listening skills are also vital. Andrew Litton, music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, said: "The sense of ensemble must always be the same. The best orchestras in the world play well because they listen to each other."

Leaders must be formidable persuaders. The late Sir George Solti said: "I have a million different ways of persuasion. Sometimes I will do it by sheer force of direction, or clarity, and by saying: 'No! It must be like this!' Sometimes I will do it by cajoling - 'My dear, why don't you try it like this?' It's like the old Hungarian multi-cultural market places. You have 10 different ways of selling the same potato to 10 different people."

Sir Colin Davis, principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, reminds us intensity and energy are essential. "As a conductor you are not actually singing and playing yourself, other people are, and you are there to help them perform. At the same time, you've got to energise the whole orchestra. It is a question of being outside, of listening very hard to what is happening and at the same time being in it so that you can give the intensity."

Intensity and energy enable leaders to elicit extraordinary performances. Sir George said: "In my enthusiasm and intensity I will very often push people to the limits of their capabilities - and that must entail a certain degree of risk, emotionally, physically and otherwise. The great thing is that the risk pays off when that person suddenly finds something in themselves they didn't know was there."

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