Managing Column for Winter, 2002 LA&M
By John Lubans, Jr.
August 7, 2001
fascination with leadership takes me to unlikely places:
a women’s locker room at half time,
a rope bridge spanning the treetops of a Maine island, and
bivouacked on the rim of an extinct volcano in Guatemala.
More recently, it was the orchestra pit in the Sydney Opera House. That came about in between my interviews of musicians at Opera Australia. Milou de Castellane (OAs publicist) asked me, casually enough: “If we could arrange it, would you like to sit in the orchestra pit tomorrow night? You’d have to wear black.”
next day’s e-mail brought the good news. “All arranged!”
there I was, ensconced among the horns, looking out at the audience with
a full-on view of Simone Young, conductor and leader.
My purpose in critically exploring outstanding organizations is to find clues and principles transferable to how we lead libraries. I believe that If you posses, or can develop, a majority of the qualities and behaviors demonstrated by successful leaders and teams you can make a transformational difference in your organization.
The question I was answering in Sydney was “Are orchestra conductors like other leaders?” The comparison is certainly a persistent one, popping up in business journals and leadership textbooks.
a few library leaders of yore may be termed maestros
because of their seeming absolute clarity of vision, purpose, and best
strategies for success. Their confidence inspired subordinates to new
heights, all for the good of their libraries and communities.
1930s film Fantasia
contains one of the most
enduring images of the all-powerful conductor. The
towering Leopold Stokowsky fills the screen. Without
a baton or a musical score, the conductor summons up Bach’s Toccata
and simultaneously brings forth light!
Of course, in real life, Mr. Stokowsky was less wizard-like. He did refer to the composer’s score and used a baton to beat time while leading the Philadelphia Symphony.
only are conductors real people, no two conductors behave alike: each
displays a different leadership style. That’s just what we’d expect
in a library - a diversity of leadership styles and approaches running
the gamut from theories X, Y
and Z, from hands-on to hands-
off, from autocratic to participatory to collaborative.
example, Leonard Bernstein inspired others to follow his vision. His
charismatic leadership captivated musicians, sweeping them along on
soaring musical adventures.
Beecham motivated his players with a combination of “humor and gentle
Toscanini controlled and commanded with absolute authority. (Maestro
Toscanini may have inspired the conductor joke in the side bar).
Well, then why look to conductors for lessons on leadership?
A conductor routinely inspires an organization of over 100 independent professionals to engage in a collaborative enterprise in a highly public venue, under a spotlight - with the customers in the same room!
conductor is uniquely and singularly responsible for the “whole
product”. And, a conductor must be accountable to the score - the
composer’s vision - in much the same way a library director is
responsible to the library’s stated mission within its community.
the best music, the orchestra has to move beyond individual needs and
perspectives and beyond rivalries and personality conflicts. When that
happens, the music can be magical – with a “unanimity of sound”
that transforms and exhilarates musicians and listeners.
how a conductor develops an orchestra into a high performing musical
team speaks to us about team building, working with large numbers of
independent staff, and leading in the library environment.
musician calls up the Orchestra’s administrative office to confirm the
rehearsal time. Alas, the secretary has sad news.
sorry, but the conductor died last night. The rehearsal has been
cancelled. There’s a memorial service tomorrow."
musician mumbles a few regrets and hangs up.
minutes later he calls and asks, again, about the rehearsal time. The
secretary, assuming he may not have heard, repeats the rehearsal is
cancelled, that the conductor is deceased; etc.
musician thanks her and hangs up.
a short while later he’s back on the phone asking about the rehearsal
time. The secretary is
puzzled and a little irked. "Listen, why do you keep calling back?
I've already told you the conductor is dead!"
know, I know, I just love to
hear you say that!"
conductor observed: Simone Young, Opera Australia
While Simone Young is 39 she is at “about early puberty” on the age scale for conductors. Yet, she is heralded as one of the musical world’s rising stars. In January 2001, following international acclaim, she returned to her native Australia to undertake both the Musical Director and Conductor roles at Opera Australia.
while Simone Young is a pioneer among female conductors - the first
woman to conduct in Berlin, Paris and Vienna
– many journalists comment extensively on her dress, down to
the stilettos she favors while conducting. Imagine
a profile about the Library of Congress’ James Billington that focused
on his shoe styles. Once she was asked if she used a baton different
from that of her male peers! She quipped, after some consternation, that
yes; her baton “sported a fetching pink bow”.
understated in the media coverage is her leadership, that she is a
leader who gets excellent results from singers and instrumentalists.
Only a few reports conclude that these good results come by way of her
incandescent intelligence and the collaborative way she works with
a two-hour rehearsal under Simone Young’s baton, many of the 70 or so
musicians are vigorously erasing old instructions and penciling in the
new on their musical scores. They’re replacing the previous
conductor’s interpretation with Simone Young’s. These jottings are
tangible reminders of how (tempo,
tone, emotional emphasis) the new leader wants the music played. The
musicians question and make comments – but for the most part what’s
written in is a record of her vision, as musical architect, about this musical composition.
phrase sums up Simone Young’s leadership:
am an advocate for the
composer – my place is to bring the will of the composer (in the most
honest way that I can interpret it) to the minds of the musicians and on
to the hearts of the audience”.
there are a variety of interpretations of any musical composition it is
essential that the conductor’s interpretation be one she believes best
serves the composer. “I become … the medium through which the
composer speaks to the orchestra,” says Simone Young.
To do that means knowing and expressing what you, as leader, want the sound to be and why you want it.
could impose an iron-fisted will, like some bosses, but that leaves you
with musicians who play without heart or understanding – a form of
making music by the numbers. To inspire musicians to join her in
momentous music making, Simone Young “bares her soul”, speaking from
the heart and mind, with clarity and conviction. There’s risk - like
any leader who tells it like it is she becomes vulnerable.
But, doing any less means she “would not be able to demand the musical and emotional honesty from my performers that is essential to realize the composer’s intention”.
“Tell us what you actually want the music to do…”
Young regards the above as pivotal advice for defining the m.o. of her leadership. It is noteworthy that this sage advice of a
decade ago came from a musician (a subordinate, not a musical critic) in an orchestra for which she was guest
conducting. Clarity is what musicians most want from conductors just
like clarity is what workers want from bosses.
But, clarity is not achieved by just speaking your mind at someone. Mutual understanding is what successful communication is about. In order to succeed at “telling us what you actually want” requires convincing communication. If you’ve prepared thoroughly enough you will have the knowledge to back up your decisions for the overall opera or, for that matter, a new library service. Simone Young explains: “I don’t have all the answers, but I have to be sure that the answers I am giving the orchestra are the right ones for me now – are the rights ones for them now”.
a large group of people what you want done so they can play it back, improved,
requires an array of communication techniques.
The quotes in the sidebar capture the flavor and purpose of her feedback during a rehearsal.
Characteristically, Simone Young mixes humor with her constructive criticism. When a singer languishes on the stage floor directly in front of the conductor’s space, she quips: “It’s lovely to see you but I’d appreciate some distance”.
when a singer is directed to lie down behind a stage prop she’ll point
out the problem to the stage director in a non-confrontational way: “I
can’t see her and she can’t see me”.
what you actually want
a power struggle between mother and son - put the struggle in the sound,
pungent, sobbing, vibrato to it; there’s a pleading quality.
_._._. I want
-. - . - .”
playing needs much more ‘line’, I’m hearing separate notes.
it like someone’s pulse, a bit feverish.
want a long short note. (This
gets a laugh and the
you can, you guys can do anything! (To
an all male orchestra).
worse the conductor the more the confrontations” is how an apprentice
conductor explains why some conductors may be in a perpetually prickly
state. The tyrannical conductor is music’s counterpart to the cartoon
world’s worst boss, whose major pre-occupation is kicking people in
the pants. Simone Young deliberately eschews the personal attack,
browbeating or any other fear-inducing tactic.
When she has personal criticism for a singer or other principal, she climbs out of the conductor’s space and gets up on the stage to talk with the singer, in a supportive and calming way. Or, she moves the discussion into the deserted Opera House hallway. She keeps individual criticism one on one, “to save face” – rather than being shouted out from the conductor’s box for all to hear. Why? It’s a lesson ever in need of learning. Tearing down someone is the least effective way to build trust. The more trust in the opera company the better the music. The more trust between management and staff the better the service product in the library.
Simone Young embraces the concept that we all “get better by making mistakes” and works at creating a climate that is accepting of mistakes. She makes clear that rehearsals are for trying out different sound textures, tempos, and variations to find the best one. If nothing else, she wants the musicians to play up! Timidly done music, like suppressed ideas at a library staff meeting, undercuts the learning from mistakes on the way to an improved process.
ladies and gentlemen”:
Rehearsals are highly efficient, calibrated to within a few minutes. While no longer unique to Australia, union rules about length of rehearsals apply to musicians and stagehands. To get a sense of labor’s power, recall that strikes, stopwork meetings, “go slows” and other types of industrial unrest delayed the completion of the Sydney Opera House for thousands of hours from the start of construction in 1959 to its completion in 1966. So, when the stage manager calls “Time, ladies and gentlemen” that’s a full stop.
Young is not one to “muck around” musicians told me. That’s
understandable given the time constraints, but it actually is another
facet of who Simone Young is, regardless of the time available.
In opera, there are remarkably few full dress rehearsals where singers, orchestra, chorus, conductor and directors come together. Much of the opera is rehearsed in seemingly unrelated segments in different locations at different times, starting early in the day and going up to ten o’clock at night. And, invariably, two to three other operas, each with their own rehearsal needs, overlap.
stop and go. Unless you are “on” it is easy to stop paying
attention. The conductor’s task is to be alert to what is going on and
somehow be able to sort out the significant details from among the many
irrelevant. For, example, does the 48 member chorus wear or carry its
hats? The decision is an easy one – there’s too little space in the
wings for them not to wear their hats.
at what speed should the curtain come down during after a concluding and
dramatic aria? It matters because the faster the curtain comes down, the
more noise the motor makes, breaking the aesthetic spell of the moment.
knowing what is irrelevant or significant, a conductor needs to know
when to make a big deal out of it.
in the voice:
a rehearsal in the Opera House, Simone Young halts the action: “Quiet,
house grows quiet except backstage, where the technicians are working.
polite request is now an imperious “I must have quiet!”
is hearing a ping-like noise directly over head.
Only her ears pick up the noise, at first, but then a few others hear it. No one knows the source or quite what to do about it. After the stage manager assures her that the ping will be eliminated the rehearsal continues.
Some minutes later the company takes a break. As the stage empties, the electricians, carpenters and other stage crew – eleven all - cluster together, no doubt about tracing the ping. One of the crew makes the unmistakably cojones grandes gesture, admitting a begrudging respect for Simone Young’s resolve!
This story catches Simone Young’s “narky” side. (The word is Australian for what can be an ill-tempered perseverance). When her standards fail to be met, she’ll explain what needs fixing (no ping!) and won’t go on until she is satisfied.
When Simone Young pushes her viewpoint, she is prepared to “walk the walk”, to take responsibility for a required action. If the conflict cannot be settled in a collaborative way, she may ultimately walk out, as she has twice in her career, with no intention of returning. Simone Young takes responsibility for pushing.
David Whyte, the poet, has a phrase for it, putting “fire in one’s voice”. As a business consultant he finds too few people in boardrooms willing to speak up about what they believe, especially when in conflict with powerful people. It’s as if we play our corporate music all too timidly. I’ve seen it in libraries when something needing “action” can’t get past the tail chasing, complaining phase.
and all” music:
Simone Young achieves a seeming paradox: she convinces players they are free to innovate and express themselves, while accepting her vision for the music and following her direction.
How does she do it? By encouraging each musician to feel he has the power to express himself, without ever surrendering her own power, her vision, or her responsibility. “If I can inspire the musicians to actually play the music the way I want to hear it, then everyone is happy!”
this is a form of the much promoted “letting go” concept for staff
empowerment: The more power you give away, the more powerful you become.
A singer told me: “One does not feel like there’s a
cage around (Simone Young) or that there is a heavy creative borderline.
You can put your stamp on (what you do); there’s freedom. It’s like
she’s saying, ‘Show me what you can do’”.
Simone Young’s genuine awareness and concern for people, her ability to talk “to you as another human”, help gain trust, the must-have for creative freedom. A few musicians I interviewed used the same phrase, a nurturing quality, to describe Simone Young’s supportiveness. It’s this “nurturing quality” that invites performers to place themselves in her hands.
Musicians told me they regard her as “being with you”, that “she is fighting for you”. Unlike some conductors who prefer distance, Simone Young overtly develops trust relationships through, for example: post rehearsal drinks with a selected few; separate rehearsals with the brass (one of many orchestras’ “benignly neglected” groups); and, individual talks with musicians.
The result among the musicians is a desire to excel : “I’m willing to do the best I can for her”, one musician told me.
out from the orchestra pit, amidst the tuning up melodies, I sense and
share a growing anticipation among the audience. Tonight is this
season’s last performance of Verdi’s Il
house lights dim. The spotlight beams down on Simone Young’s entry to
a swelling applause. Now, a
few minutes after 7:30PM, with
the curtain about to rise, she
adds another ingredient to the magic of the evening - her
Simone Young conducts, literally, “from the toes” to the tip of her baton with a dynamic, infectious energy and enthusiasm. Her commitment is “boots and all”, leading at a prestissimo pace – no one has worked harder, studied longer, or understands better the composer’s intention.
All eyes in the orchestra pit are fixed on Simone Young. Her eyes at key moments become hypnotic – a basilisk-like gaze summoning unanimity of sound.
Her love for the music, her passion for the sound elicits and “commands” the best from the musicians. She shushes the strings, encourages the brass, smiles. She gestures for more, for less, with a slight frown followed by another frown with a touch to her ear or a happy smile.
Simone Young makes the music “sing within you and through you”. I find myself gladly swept along by this gathering of musical forces.
Quintessentially Simone, during a non-musical moment in the opera, she jokes with the first violin and gives the musicians two thumbs up. This is fun!
that is the one most transformational quality of a great leader –
expressing joy in what she does.
Lubans Jr., conducts leadership workshops for librarians. His e-mail is John@Lubans.org.
Web page: www.lubans.org