The Music in Leadership

I enjoy preparing the presentations to be made at IITD. I learn a lot in the process – especially the reading and research I have to invest time on. I guess I am making good progress. I have to treasure the pen I got last week as special achievement award for a two-minute presentation I made. Stupid of me not to have celebrated that!

This time the topic is Leadership and my talk will be based on a video on leading like the great music conductors. Though I will be only taking a few short extracts from the video, I feel guilty that I am relying on near-ready-made stuff. From now on, I should choose more challenging topics. That would give me opportunities for more learning and introspection.

Here is what the talk will dwell on:

I will start with the observation that looking at conductors conducting an orchestra has always been a mesmerizing experience for me. The movement of a baton could bring about heavenly music or bring it to an abrupt halt. It will be followed by the question whether conducting is about great gestures, followed by whether leadership is about accumulated knowledge about leadership.

The presentation will continue with conductor Carlos Kleiber conducting an orchestra with poise, imagination and happiness. The conductor looked very happy and he enabled the stories of the orchestra members and the audience to be heard and acknowledged.

Then there is the short video of Ricardo Muti conducting an orchestra with authority and command. Watching him conduct is a visual treat. His demeanor is almost haughty and there is an air of no-nonsense attitude. He would have the musicians play exactly as he has interpreted the music and he would not have anyone giving it their own twist. No wonder 700 musicians of La Scala requested him to quit. They thought he was using them as instruments.

The video of Herbert von Karajan conducting is very fascinating. As he conducts, his eyes are closed and his arms move in a circular motion. His idea of conducting is to let the members of orchestra get a feel of one another and it is a few senior members who lead the orchestra. Karajan exists to provide them them the right atmosphere and enabling spirit among the members of the orchestra. This surely is laissez-faire leadership where the leader does not act with authority but allow the members to take the lead. I will give the example of Ricardo Semler who turned the conventional wisdom of management and leadership upside down by letting his employees decide how to run his company.

Then there are three more short video clips of Kleiber conducting. His elaborate arm movements do not suggest clear direction. Instead they are only indications to the orchestra members that he is leaving them room for them to interpret the music. For him, the process of music making is very important. Like the process of a roller-coaster keeps everyone in place, so too is making and playing music a process for Kleiber’s orchestra. They have the plan in their head and being very well grounded in the process, they bring about excellent music.

In another clip, Kleiber is shown on three occasions pointing out the mistake of a musician in a very subtle way. While it is important to be a transformational leader, it is also important to have control over what members of a team does.

The video where Kleiber is shown enjoying the music played by one of his orchestra members convey the important message that paying compliments is extremely important. More importantly, great leaders also allow the team members to lead while the leaders themselves stay in the background. Lao Tzu’s quote – To lead people, walk behind them – illustrates this point.

At this point I will speak about Jim Stengel’s study about the success rates of artist leaders over the operator leaders. Artist leaders are those who lead with values and ideals. Operator leaders are just concerned about getting the job done.

Then, there will be another slide explaining the importance great leaders attach to Vision and meaning.

Here is the most important part of the presentation and this is my interpretation and opinion. What is the best style of leadership? Ideally, one should lead like Leonard Bernstein or Carlos Kleiber, transferring their emotions and the weight of their personality to the people they command. But not everyone is a Bernstein or Kleiber. Ricardo Muti with his highly autocratic style or Karajan with his laissez-faire style are also among the best conductors the world has produced. One can’t hope to become a great leader by emulating someone else truly great. They just have to be themselves as they are, loving themselves and doing their very best in awareness as they go about leading their people.

According to me, a good leader is someone who is a good human being first and foremost. Someone people can trust implicitly. When the state of flow disappears from a leader, he becomes a shell of his earlier self as a leader.

I was considered an excellent leader during most part of my career. But at some point in my life, the state of grace disappeared and with it also ceased the ability to command respect and get what I want. Then, every clerk in small and big organisations could advice me on how to lead. I have to re-discover  what I have temporarily forgotten. I like this Carlos Castaneda quote and I want to do what is suggested here to emerge out of the shadows into my sunlight.

To be a warrior is not a simple matter of wishing to be one. It is rather an endless struggle that will go on to the very last moment of our lives. Nobody is born a warrior, in exactly the same way that nobody is born an average man. We make ourselves into one or the other.

-Carlos Castaneda

The presentation will conclude with Leonard Bernstein’s powerful performance as a conductor without moving his arms or baton. It is great example of doing much without doing. And also illustrating – when you love something, you give it away.


Leave a Comment