What conductors of orchestras teach us on leadership

In a recent edition of BBC’s HARDtalk, Stephen Sackur interviewed the Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer.

The image we have of orchestral conductors is that they are the ones in charge, the ones directing those with the musical instruments — who in turn are mere recipients of their master’s voice. Not so with Fischer though. He doesn’t believe in this dictatorial know-it-all leadership style.

He enjoys bringing out the creativity in his players, and indeed he wants to hear them play in the full sense of the word so that the child within them comes alive.

He doesn’t conduct to be seen as a person of power, but rather as someone who brings the music, the players and the audience together so that they are all engaged and delighted to be sharing the experience of the concert.

Fischer also spoke of too many orchestras being like dinosaurs, doing what they’ve always done and resisting change, risking extinction.

Contrary to Sackur’s expectations, he explained how he has introduced all kinds of innovations, including selecting a much wider variety of music; placing members of a choir among the audience so they could surprise them when they stood up and burst into song and getting himself Covid vaccinated while conducting a live concert, to encourage those watching to follow suit and also get jabbed.

As I listened to Fischer reflecting on how conductors of orchestras exercise leadership it led me to compare myself to an orchestral conductor. At this stage of my life, as a chairman of boards, a consultant, a facilitator, a mediator, a coach, I no longer “play instruments”.

My job is about helping organisations to align around and live their visions and values, so that great “music” is performed (the products), to the delight of the “audience” (the customers). That is my value addition.

I don’t need to be better at playing individual organisational “instruments” (functional specialties like production, accounting, IT, whatever) to indulge in the kind of “conducting” that occupies my life. As it happens the “instrument” I mostly used to play was the marketing one, but more importantly, I was always a member of an “orchestra”, knowing I had to do better than be a great soloist.

I also tried to be aware of what it was that I did not know, and be ready to admit where my talents and experience did not lie.

In any of the roles I play these days, the instruments are not in my hands. My job, like that of the conductor, involves a great deal of listening and observing, to get a sense of where the music is good and where and how it could be better.

Like all leaders, including conductors, I need to adequately trust and respect the musicians around me, building both their competence and their confidence, and so to empower them and delegate to them.

Fischer clearly enjoyed the HARDtalk interview, displaying a great sense of fun. It was evident that he also enjoys conducting his orchestra, and I very strongly related to that. I expect that I and those around me will enjoy working together, not least because we will be performing well together.

For me, leadership with a light touch should be the default position — and not least in times of crisis. That’s not to say the big stick is never needed, but the delicate conductor’s baton is much to be preferred wherever possible.

So I must thank Sackur for inviting Fischer to be interviewed. And like it got me thinking about my leadership style and contribution, I hope reading this article will help you ponder on yours.

Before concluding I wish to refer to another leadership analogy, as proposed by Sunny Bindra in one of his recent Sunday Nation columns. He was encouraged by the leaders and teams who have understood that collective intelligence is the future.

“A boss who gets it grows and coaches others to develop ideas and make decisions, and does not hoard power,” he wrote. “Instead of coming up with answers, this boss creates the conditions in which others can contribute answers. The boss becomes the gardener, not the biggest tree in the plot that takes up all the sunlight.”

So, are you the gardener or the big tree, the conductor with the big stick or the delicate baton?

Reviving the neglected art of self-exploration

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.

How firms can handle integrity lapses by staff

In PwC’s 2020 global economic crime and fraud survey, Fighting Fraud – A never-ending battle, fraud was identified among the top concerns. So the ability to identify fraud perpetrated from either within or outside the organisation and then to deal with it swiftly and fairly is critical.

In one large local company on whose board I serve, I chair the Board Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee, where the issue of identifying and handling fraud and other integrity issues features prominently. So let me share the lessons we have been learning in dealing with such matters.

A major challenge organisations face is just gathering information on fraud being perpetrated by employees or others, which is why many have invested in ways of making it as easy as possible to communicate information about integrity lapses.

These include ethics hotlines, compliance web portals, and email contacts to which to send such information – often outside of the organisation, and typically to an audit firm.

Not surprisingly perhaps, utilisation of these platforms is relatively low when compared to informal reporting, or finding out about cases through the grapevine.

Organisations, therefore, need to build cultures and systems that enable whistleblowers to feel it is the right thing to do and to feel secure about doing so. Some even provide monetary incentives, although this may encourage false whistleblowing – a not unusual occurrence anyway.

The speed with which reported issues are investigated, action is taken, and communication is fed back to the whistleblower, has a direct impact on confidence in the process. So there must be adequate investigating capacity, with staff possessing the relevant forensic experience.

Matters reported must be handled with utmost confidentiality, for whistleblowers need to remain anonymous, thus minimising the chances of retaliatory actions being taken by those involved in the integrity matter.

Then, staff in departments that are likely to access information on matters being reported – such as ICT, investigations and internal audit – should sign Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Some decide to sue staff for damages resulting from integrity issues, pursuing criminal and/or civil litigation. But the evidence threshold for successful litigation is extremely high, so one must ensure that documentation and other sources of evidence are impeccable – no mean feat.

For criminal proceedings, the investigating officers and prosecutors need to be properly appraised of the matter to ensure they fully understand the issues, prepare robust witness statements, and hence prosecute successfully.

In addition to the evidence, witnesses must come forward and corroborate that evidence, so organisations need to publish guidelines on witness protection, together with incentives to encourage witnesses to be present in what are likely to be lengthy court processes.

When obtaining evidence from private investigators, one must ensure that it is obtained through legal means, so that it can stand scrutiny in court.

Organisations also need to be alive to the fact that fraud can be perpetrated by anyone – even those responsible for ensuring internal compliance and investigating abuses.

Serious background checks and vetting therefore should be carried out before onboarding such staff, and an internal mechanism must be put in place to ensure that fraud perpetrated by staff in these offices can be detected.

In staff induction programmes the value of integrity and the importance attached to compliance should be included for all staff, and there should be continuous emphasis by all levels of management on these subjects in staff meetings.

Alongside this, those who uphold the value should be recognised, while those who do not should be penalised.

A major fraud risk results from conflicts of corporate and individual interests. It is therefore important for staff to be given an opportunity to declare such potential or actual conflicts so as to remain relaxed in their roles.

The process of making declarations should be continuous, so that staff are given an opportunity to declare interest conflicts upfront.

What happens when there is proof of culpability, and the organisation wishes to recover its losses from the employee?

With the slow pace of court litigation, it takes forever, diminishing the value of any recoveries. And that’s if the verdict is favourable, in itself of relatively low probability. But at least with the introduction of the Small Claims Courts such matters will be concluded much more quickly.

The more I have been involved in these integrity and compliance issues, the more I have realised how complex and challenging it is to deal with them, and how one must keep constant focus on them and keep applying the lessons learned.