I was fascinated by the recent conversation with Jonathan Spitz in which he describes the inner workings of an essentially leaderless (or all-leader, depending on your interpretation) organization.
His story of Orpheus initially conjured up mental images for me of often dysfunctional and combative meetings where, to borrow a tired but still applicable metaphor, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. But Spitz explains that by show time, “we’ve decided that the music is going to go this way…. everybody on that stage is working with all their passion to make that interpretation come alive.”
In my career, I have twice worked with another conductor, Roger Nierenberg, who leads a very powerful experiential exercise, dubbed The Music Paradigm, in which participants are seated scattered in and amongst an actual, full-size professional orchestra, plucked from wherever the meeting happens to be held. Nierenberg leads the musicians through a series of exercises while drawing parallels between a working orchestra and corporate life.
He initially asks the orchestra to just go ahead and play a piece of music, while he simply sits down and listens. At first, the musicians look a bit befuddled, but they soon get their bearings and start to play. The result, particularly while you are seated in the middle of the orchestra, is quite breathtaking. These are after all, professional musicians who perform together on a regular basis.
But then Nierenberg takes up the baton, and starts guiding the musicians. And even to the untrained ear, the difference is striking. Suddenly, everything comes together in subtle but powerful ways that were missing before. The music is more nuanced, the timing tighter, the emotion of the music somehow even more powerful.
Both of these stories illustrate to me the importance of leadership — however it may be arrived at — in creating a compelling vision, encouraging others to follow that vision and, above all, trusting in the natural talents of your team to deliver on that vision. A leader must know when to “conduct” and when to step back and allow the unique talents of his or her employees to flourish on their own.
The difference between good leadership and truly great leadership can be as subtle as a wave of a baton, but in the right hands, the results can be dramatic.