The “Maestro Complex” Part 2.

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2012

Viviane Hagner (see Part 1) elaborated on her response: “Even in symphonies (with conductors, the players) need to talk with each other.” Her words are a good lead-in to Part 2 of the "Maestro Complex."

Davidson, in his article “What Does a Conductor Do?” suggests that leadership styles among conductors are changing. As implied in Ms. Hagner’s quote, he claims that there is a perceptible shift for more freedom (and power) for players.
This change is due more to unionization of musicians than to conductors “letting go” of their usual tight grip on the reins. A tyrannical conductor can still publicly humiliate a musician, but he’ll pay a price. The modern orchestra (a few are self-managed) has some say over which conductors get asked back.
Still, Davidson’s preferred way of leading leans to the traditional conductor, the self-sufficient and all-knowing maestro. I am not suggesting Davidson turns into an intolerant leader. Rather, he acts on the received tradition that the conductor’s job is to figure out the music and to lead it. Input from the musicians is incidental; it is not pursued. After all, as Davidson says, “(a) good conductor is a parent who’s always ready and always right.” In other words, musicians are children in need of guidance/direction.
While most of us think it is desirable to share decision-making, when we become THE boss, our go-to way of leading, our intuitive impulse is to centralize decisions, to go it alone - just like Davidson did - regardless of evidence that collaborating with others usually results in better decisions. (No, seeking advice from an inner circle of like-minded managers is not the same as talking to the people doing the work.) It takes a deliberate effort to ask for the workers’ advice and opinion. Doing so (letting others participate) can be seen by some as weakness. I am reminded of a study in a recent book, Sway. The authors maintain that dissent – a normal part of democracy - is essential to limiting our wrong-headedness. To get honest dissent, the boss has to establish a climate that permits, even empowers, dissent. Airlines now train cockpit crews in how to “block” – the term for getting in the way of irrational behavior - when a safety rule may be violated. Not only does dissent improve decision-making it can also save lives.
Corporate leaders, because they rarely allow others to see how they lead, are under far less scrutiny than are conductors (or surgeons or airline pilots). Inferior performance in an organization can be hidden for years or, if business is good, an inferior leader can take credit for the work of effective followers. Some corporate leaders may fantasize that they, alone, make the difference. I recall a friend’s boss who often spoke at professional meetings and encouraged collaboration and risk taking, innovation and experimentation. Back home, my friend learned to her dismay, that her boss talked the game but then punished anyone who took him up on it. If you experimented, innovated, collaborated with others then the boss would undercut your efforts, maybe even encourage you to leave. This boss was not about to relinquish control, and the organization suffered. Of course the damage (unlike a failed public musical performance) caused by this boss is not easily perceived by higher ups.

Early on in my career, I certainly thought it was up to me to make decisions and to do so with minimal input from staff. As I matured, I suffered less from Davidson's Maestro Complex (the need to justify my higher salary and to exhibit my “superior” knowledge). When I turned to the staff for help, we achieved our goals and higher productivity. It was really very simple, I had no illusions about my expertise, so I had to let go and allow staff to collaborate. Not that I was detached; I was an active participant in work meetings and I did ask good questions that complemented my ability to spot redundancies at 50 paces. I knew the type of followers I wanted and was active in recruiting them. And, I was very good at finding the best people (both staff and managers) and allowing them freedom to get the job done. My “hands off” approach worked well for about five years. Then, because of organizational shifts, we started to bog down once again, returning to the hierarchy in structure and behavior. My way of leading now ran counter to what the organization wanted and, as I have already said, inefficiencies can be easily rationalized and covered up. Finally, when my boss departed, I lost the necessary support and my days were numbered.

For those five golden years I did not have to justify my presence – staff relished their freedom (and saw me as the source of that freedom) and my boss supported me. Insecure conductors (and managers) "gesticulate, point, urge, and cajole" – they micromanage. For example, one of the conductors coaching Davidson in one session “demonstrated for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrected a bowing in the violin part, sang the bassoon line, and pointed out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score.” For Davidson the key point here is the conductor’s phenomenal memory. Well, a good memory is important, but this is micromanaging. Why not let the musician make the mistake and figure it out; why not let them “lead” themselves and make decisions relevant to the work they do.

Conductors are essential for facilitating communication in large orchestras.
20120515-Chichon1.jpeg
Caption: Karel Mark Chichon
Some conductors, like Karel Mark Chichon, whom I have seen perform a half dozen times with the Latvian National Symphony, have great gifts. Maestros, like Chichon, can take a very good orchestra and make it great. They understand the composer’s meaning, articulate it, and somehow inspire musicians to reach high levels of performance. I doubt there is much micromanaging (or ass-kicking, to put it crudely) by this superb leader; the true maestro works at the conceptual level, eliciting a particular sound from the musicians, the workers. It is up to the players to rise to the occasion, to meet the conductor at the mountain top and share in the joy of the music! The conductor trusts the musicians and the musicians trust the conductor. This shared trust spurs everyone to higher and higher levels of performance. That’s the best kind of leadership: followers and leader interacting and producing something very good.
Interestingly, Davidson does note, among other clues, his mentor’s advice (very much like a manager’s “letting go”) for getting through a dicey part in the score:
“Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it.”
However, Davidson qualifies this counsel: “That’s a useful though not universal commandment: Do Less.”
Davidson’s coaches give him additional insights about leading: One tells a conducting student not to lean toward the players, (hectoring them) instead “to set aside the baton, close his eyes, and turn his back to the orchestra so that he’ll listen more and insist less.” No micromanaging there.
Then, Davidson heard some great advice from Bernard Haitink, the Dutch maestro during his visit to Juilliard. Observing a student rehearsal, Haitnik cautions: “The musicians are very busy with playing.... “You (the conductor) should not distract them!” Definitely no micromanaging there!
Davidson further reinforces the notion of letting the musicians lead with this quote from a principal cellist: “It’s amazing how beautifully we play when we don’t know what the hell the guy on the podium is doing.”
In spite of these several bits of leadership wisdom, Davidson is anxious about how he will lead the student orchestra through a difficult part of the overture. He calls it the No, really passage. Worried for several days, he hopes for the best that somehow something will come to him.
Here he describes how he did in his conducting debut:
“I make plenty of flubs: I scramble the beat, forget a cue, confuse the players once or twice. The Juilliard students respond with sensitivity and respect, and a desire to play as beautifully as I will let them.” And, his mentor offers him high praise for how he conducted the No, really.
Why did Davidson not ask the student musicians for help or simply let them play through the No, really? To collaborate with them and figure it out. Davidson did well, but I am left with a What if? What if he and the students had talked about the No, really?
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“I learned more about conducting by watching (Orpheus) rehearse, than I have in all my conducting classes.”
This quote in my book comes from a conducting student who, like me, sat in on an Orpheus rehearsal. He had learned something remarkable: there is a process for and value in soliciting ideas from the players – the people doing the work. And while that may sound obvious to most managers, it is a lesson worth re-stating and practicing.

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