On Managing Column for Winter, 2002 LA&M
By John Lubans, Jr.
August 7, 2001

Prestissimo Leadership

My 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.”

The next day’s e-mail brought the good news. “All arranged!”

And 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.

Indeed, 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.

The 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.

Not 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.

For example, Leonard Bernstein inspired others to follow his vision. His charismatic leadership captivated musicians, sweeping them along on soaring musical adventures.

Thomas Beecham motivated his players with a combination of “humor and gentle insistence”.

Arturo 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!

The 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.

For 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. 

So, 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.

A musician calls up the Orchestra’s administrative office to confirm the rehearsal time. Alas, the secretary has sad news.

"I'm sorry, but the conductor died last night. The rehearsal has been cancelled. There’s a memorial service tomorrow."

The musician mumbles a few regrets and hangs up.

Five 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.

The musician thanks her and hangs up.

Well, 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!" 

"I know, I know, I just love to hear you say that!"

A 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.

Ironically, 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”.

What’s 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 musicians. 

A defining moment:

Throughout 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.

Leading through advocacy

That phrase sums up Simone Young’s leadership:

“I 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”.

While 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.

She 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…”

Simone 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”.

Telling 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”.

Or, 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”.

Telling what you actually want

To Explain:

There’s a power struggle between mother and son - put the struggle in the sound, ___>>>____>>>____>>>.

(There’s a) pungent, sobbing, vibrato to it; there’s a pleading quality.

To Give Feedback:

Not _._._. I want -. - . - .

Your playing needs much more ‘line’, I’m hearing separate notes.

To Direct:

Play it like someone’s pulse, a bit feverish.

I want a long short note. (This gets a laugh and the improvement).

To Encourage:

Just try it!

Sure you can, you guys can do anything! (To an all male orchestra).

Saving face:

“The 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.

“Time, 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.

Simone 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.

Rehearsals 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.

Or, 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.

Besides knowing what is irrelevant or significant, a conductor needs to know when to make a big deal out of it.

Fire in the voice:

During a rehearsal in the Opera House, Simone Young halts the action: “Quiet, please”.

The house grows quiet except backstage, where the technicians are working.

Her polite request is now an imperious “I must have quiet!”

She 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.

 “Boots 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!”

Maybe 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.

Show time: 

Gazing 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 Trovatore.

The 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 style.

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!

Perhaps that is the one most transformational quality of a great leader – expressing joy in what she does.


John Lubans Jr., conducts leadership workshops for librarians. His e-mail is John@Lubans.org. Web page: www.lubans.org