The Symphony Conducter Isn’t All Bad

I just read another great post by Wally Bock on leadership. In his most recent post, Wally takes aim at the management metaphor that is provided by the symphony conductor.  Wally provides a great argument against this leadership example; the conductor stands out in front, above his orchestra and exerts utter control.  To make matters worse, the conductor gets to take the full credit for the orchestra’s performance – in fact, the conductor is often the only performer to take a bow.  When you view it like that, Wally’s right; this model can’t possibly reflect the modern collaborative approach to leadership.  Or is he?

Management or leadership?

Consider the concept of the high reliability organization (HRO).  These organizations are defined by the price of failure.  They are exemplified by places like submarine control rooms, hospital emergency rooms or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.  For these organizations the price of failure is measured not only in big money, but in lives.  The people who work in HROs, much like our orchestra, are professionals who don’t need to be told every aspect of their job.  They do, however, require someone to coordinate their activities and set the priorities – I can’t see anyone putting together an orchestra, handing out sheet music to provide the goal and then stepping back – the result would be very hard to listen to.  In other words, they need a conductor.

Let’s go over the conductor’s role again.  As the leader, he or she selects the music – or, perhaps better seen as the organization’s goal – and then sets the tempo.  Communicating using nothing but body language, the conductor coordinates the activities of a vast array of highly trained specialists.  With a gesture, he or she influences the outcome – bringing in the violins to take over the melody, initiating the flute sections’ counter-melody, reducing the volume of the percussion section so that Swan Lake can continue to awe and amaze.  As Wally points out, the conductor doesn’t wade through the orchestra pit to begin moving somebody’s fingers around the strings of a violin.  Quite the opposite – as the leader, the conductor steps up so that he or she can see and be seen.  Armed with the whole situational picture that cannot be seen by the 3rd flute, the conductor tweaks the machine to make magic.

So what is the conductor really doing?  Is he or she conducting a management activity? Nope.  When you roll in coordination, influence and communication, the conductor is coming dangerously close to exercising command.

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