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?