Ten Tips for Conductors; 10 for Managers

Posted by jlubans on December 17, 2013

The book, Leading from the Middle, includes several musical examples of leadership and followership. For example, the unbossed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Hamburg’s collaborative conductor, Simone Young, inspired me to apply their musical leadership ideas to non-musical fields. When the BBC put forth a list of tips for aspiring conductors, I was more than a little curious.

Caption: Finland’s Salonen in performance mode.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and a recent “conductor of the year.” I’ve improvised on and adapted his career advice – The 10 Tips - to those of us not in music. One or two of the tips (“Get a good stick”) are a stretch, I know, but worth the effort:
1. Love the music
Obviously it takes passion to take music and work beyond the mundane. It cannot just be another job. If it is, you’ve not found what you were meant to do. And, that passion has to be for what you do, not for self-aggrandizement. The perks may be nice, but that’s not why you are there if you love your work.
2. Go to rehearsals
I remember a Juilliard School of Music conducting student telling me he learned more about conducting by watching the conductor-less Orpheus rehearse than in going to conducting class. If you work with a good leader, then take notes on how she deals with conflict, how she conducts a meeting, how she promotes the organization’s mission. Observe the process of how she gets things done, not just the result. If you work for a bad boss, rehearse how not to do it.
3. Learn to play an instrument well
To be credible, a leader should know in depth all there is to know about some aspect of the work of the organization. It may not be possible to know everything about a field of work, but understanding a segment really well – philosophically and mechanically - does give you insights about the overall mission. And, according to Salonen, being knowledgeable puts you “in a moral, mental or ethical position to demand the same thing from (others).”
4. Accept that you are just a waiter
For Salonen, the composer of the musical piece is the Chef and the conductor is the waiter. (So the musicians are the cooks?) As a waiter – even the headwaiter – “I am there to make sure the food comes to the table on time and intact.” The notion of conductor as waiter (rather than an Übermensch) brings to mind the humble notion of the organization’s “invisible leader”. The invisible leader is the mission of the organization and that mission drives both leaders and followers.
5. Shed your thick skin and don't scare people
If you are trying “to focus the thoughts and ideas of a large group of people and enable them to achieve the desired … result”, then being the autocratic tough guy, is probably not the best way. Sure, fear can get results, but those are short term. “On the contrary you need to be sensitive, you need to be able to feel the vibes of an orchestra (or any organization) on a human level to be able to pick up what's going wrong.”
6. Stay in shape
Leading is hard work. To recover from the exertions of guiding an orchestra, bar by bar, through a rehearsal, Salonen runs. For me, exercise (from a casual walk to a work out) frees the mind to wander and to reconsider a decision or process, to think about how something might be done better, to open oneself to the unexpected. And, being fit, especially when a job is not going well, is something the organization cannot take away. The petty boss will nit-pick and impede what I want to do, but my keeping in shape is a way to survive and hope for better times.
7. Get a good stick
Substitute the word “style” for stick. Get a good leadership style. Indeed get several styles, just like Salonen has boxes of wooden batons to choose from. Coach Gail Goestenkors, someone observed to me, used a different leadership style with each of fourteen basketball players she coached. It was her way or reaching each player. One monochromatic style is not enough. I recall a boss telling me how one of my subordinates thought my leadership style was just right. Well, unfortunately, that was the same unassertive style I was using with everyone! To get better, I would need to be energetically direct with some and barely perceptible for others; turning them loose was the best thing for me do.
8. Make little excursions outside your comfort zone daily
To avoid stagnation, take those “little excursions” into risk. I found in my career that outdoor retreats helped work colleagues gain new perspectives and the realization that we could accomplish the apparently impossible. The perceived risk was great but it was not dangerous. Just making the attempt encouraged us; failure only made us better able for the next challenge.
9. Tweet
For Salonen, “it is an arrogant and stupid thought that classical music should somehow exist in a bubble.” Social media is an opportunity for the classical musician to engage with those in the audience. The thought takes me back to the staff elevator at the University of Michigan General Library. I was a library work-study scholar on the way to the top floor to see someone in HR when the director of the library got on. He did not say a word or otherwise acknowledge me as we rode to the top. But, being approachable is not enough. Like Salonen, reach out and engage your audience, your staff, and your users.
10. Be a boy or a girl
There is less gender discrimination in music – some say - but female conductors are hardly the norm. That condition – male dominance as CEOs and conductors - has little to do with ability or, nowadays, opportunity; it may have something, interestingly enough, to do with gender. A recent study shows that as males and females of equal potential and talent ascend the corporate ladder, women often opt out, voluntarily, of their next well-earned promotion.
In my field of work, large academic libraries, I have found many excellent women staff who love their work and do it exceedingly well but have little interest in management. That is one reason why I promote the democratic workplace – a distribution of responsibility and trust – to make for a more egalitarian culture, one with less bureaucratic drudgery and more “real, creative work.”

Copyright 2013 John Lubans

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