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?

Why it’s a good idea for family businesses to form boards

Much of my talk with owners of family businesses is about whether the time is right for them to create a formal board with independent directors.

Very few do, even where their companies have reached a significant scale. So I was pleased that on a recent webinar hosted by Sirdar, the South African-based organisation that helps build better boards around the continent, this was the topic of discussion.

There was easy unanimity among the contributors that appointing independent directors is a good idea. So why are most family business owners reluctant to bring in such independent voices? What do they fear? Why do they hold back from what is commonly labelled as “professionalising”?

Well, they’ve never done it, and doing so has never been on their horizon. As one owner-director-manager put it to me, “My brother and I just talk about things like strategy as we drive to and from our office,” and another does so with his father at their family Sunday lunches. That’s worked well enough, they reckon.

But as younger generations have been emerging into senior leadership, and as “sustainability” is entering the mindset of SME owners, more family businesses are bringing external minds into their worlds.

Not to hand over control to them, and perhaps not – at least initially – to have them be full directors with fiduciary responsibilities, but to be “advisory” board members. This way they can test the waters, seeing how much value they add and how well the chemistry works between them.

A common concern is loss of control, having been used to always acting as the sole decision-makers. Yet disagreements among family members are all too normal, and a common role of independent directors is to act as mediators and consensus builders.

More so if they are offered the position of chair – in itself recognised as displaying good governance. This implies seeking individuals with high emotional intelligence, able to bring together different perspectives.

The challenge is often between generations, where younger, more exposed directors may feel constrained by their elders – who remain convinced that the way they’ve always been handling the business should remain untouched. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” they pose.

A major benefit of bringing non-family members into a board is the formalisation of strategy development and implementation, along with more effective performance management.

Professionalising also implies having a Board Charter; circulating board papers in advance; and agreeing a calendar of board meetings (and perhaps board committee meetings, assuming the appetite exists), at least quarterly and each with their purpose and agenda. In these ways the business becomes more focused on the longer term – and is therefore more sustainable.

How do owners go about identifying the benefits they can enjoy as a result of appointing independent directors? It’s not hard.

The family decision-makers are typically the father and two or three from the next generation, maybe brothers, maybe cousins, and now including the occasional female member. They should list the areas where they are strong and ones where they are less so, and seek external contributors to fill the gaps.

Likely candidates will have their own functional, geographic and other experiences; they will come with complementary educational backgrounds and networks; and their personalities and styles will be compatible with those of the family.

It may be good to offer them initial engagements that don’t even include directorships. To offer a personal example, in a couple of family businesses where I was invited to be a director, it was after carrying out some consulting activity with the company. They were happy with my contribution and my style, and I felt comfortable with them.

Even once appointed, there may be benefits in having the independent directors carry out activities beyond merely attending board and board committee meetings. They can guide strategy retreats, meet stakeholders and offer other areas within their expertise.

At the conclusion of the Sirdar webinar, one of the panelists’ closing comments was to urge families to bring in external directors, as his family business had done to great effect. And for my conclusion here I turn to Manu Chandaria, whom I interviewed recently on a Nairobi Business Forum webinar.

In commenting on how it was that he and his family managed to grow their business to the scale they have achieved, one of his explanations was the bringing in of professionals as both board members and executives at an unusually early stage of their development. So if you are running a family business, try it!