Baton-wielding managers

The enigmatic art of the orchestral conductor is a powerful model for organisational leadership



It was during a master class for conductors with Kurt Masur, held at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn.

Six young and already successful conductors were showing the maestro their skills. One of them took on the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica and just couldn’t seem to bring it together. Unsatisfied, Masur gave the young man instructions for another go. “Stick your hands in your pockets and try again.” The young conductor had nothing to rely on but himself. No wild gesticulations, no wanton cues. His only tools were his personality, his charisma, his carriage and his gaze.

Have you ever thought about what goes into conducting? And have you ever wondered if leadership positions in business, government, administration or a social institution have anything in common with the work of an orchestral conductor? Perhaps my life-long love for classical music had something to do with it but during my own work as a manager the parallels between the two became increasingly apparent to me. Professor Gernot Schulz and I got to know each other during an event for DHL executives. A long-time member of the Berlin Philharmonic, he was led to the conductor’s podium by none other than Herbert von Karajan. Today the music educator is an internationally acclaimed conductor. It quickly became clear to both of us just how much conducting could teach managers about themselves and their personal leadership styles.  

Conducting and leadership

There are many different conducting styles in the professional music world and even more leadership techniques and trends in the world of business and administration.

Thinking back to just a few of the world’s famous conductors, we have the taskmaster Bruno Walter, the dour and often angry Karl Böhm, the energetic perfectionist Herbert von Karajan, the hyper-sensitive Carlos Kleiber, the often affected Lorin Maazel, the wild Gustavo Dudamel, the fearfully fastidious Claudio Abbado, and the score-obsessed Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Most people know them mostly for their interpretive work and performances, and less so from their rehearsals with the orchestras, which is where their varied and highly unusual leadership styles came – and still come – into play.

The question of how best to lead others is a perpetual issue and a constant challenge within companies and organisations, no matter what their size. In today’s business environment, management is the third decisive factor alongside capital and labour. The success of a business, or even just an individual project, depends a great deal not only on the management’s professional know-how, but on the personal, human quality of its leadership. Aware of the importance of leadership, enterprises and organisations are keen to promote this aspect by providing their management staff with the appropriate training. With the zeitgeist and trends dictating the methods, I pretty much saw it all over the course of my career. That said, it is still very much needed. The misconduct and unethical behaviour of a number of top managers – a contributing factor to the recent economic crisis – make the need for reliable and authentic leadership all the more acute.

Gernot Schulz and I had no intention of adding yet another variation on the theme of leadership technique teaching. Our conducting-based seminar model homes in on the unchanging essence of good leadership, namely the personality of the leader. Without a doubt, techniques such as From Pyramids to Networks, fitness programmes, positive thinking and motivational training are valuable and effective teaching tools. What they do not do, however, is reflect upon – let alone tap into - the potential in the leader’s own personality. Accepting the significance of the personality aspect is the first step in laying the groundwork for successful leadership. To do this, one needs to know one’s own strengths and weaknesses – and to experience how one’s behaviour affects others.

For over four decades, I was steeped in the subject of leadership and its many facets as part of my work. My first working years were greatly influenced by Bertelsmann owner Reinhard Mohn, a man who was passionate about leadership, management conduct and establishing business as a regulatory organism. Looking back, I am now able to say that the quintessential leader is not politically-correct and haloed. Model leaders are charismatic and inspiring individuals, idiosyncrasies and all.

The symphony orchestra has proven itself an ideal stand-in for a creative team, a department or a business unit. The musicians are the employees. They are well trained and, by practicing their craft on a daily basis, they are able to gauge their own performance and make correction and improvements along the way. The section leaders are synonymous with group leaders and quality managers. The score is the concept, the framework for business targets and goals. The members of the audience are the customers. They have paid the admission fee and expect a great performance in return. The musical performance is a service delivered under specific terms and in a specific ambience. And the conductor?

The conductor as manager and leader

The symphony orchestra ‘team’ is truly unique, for nowhere else is the feedback so honest and immediate for the person at the helm. The orchestral setting allows the individual to see just how convincing he or she is as a manager and whether the signals sent were able to elicit the desired behaviour. During our own Managers Conduct seminar, 10 or so participants are given a unique, hands-on opportunity to try out their leadership skills with a complete symphony orchestra.

When it comes to success factors and the experiential scope, success on the conductor’s platform has much in common with success in managing employees. The person that leads must be true to him- or herself, remaining authentic and focused. They need to be able feel out negative attitudes and vibes within the team and diffuse them. It is also important to have a clear idea of the ‘oeuvre’, the final product – the person must have a vision. Whether conductor or project manager, the leader must always be one step ahead of the rest and never lose sight of the goal.

The successful manager gives clear instructions and provides cues for action without going overboard. Too many cues can quickly become disconcerting for a team.

It’s about inspiring others. This means fostering a sense of pride in the team project. The person leading must not allow negative experiences with individual team members to discourage them. After all, emotions and attitudes – both positive and negative – have a direct impact on the team as well. The executive should maintain good relationships with department heads, section heads and high performers, as they perform a liaising function with the group and help ensure the targeted quality. There are a few rules of thumb for the responsible leader. Never expose weak employees in front of others; instead, make it clear, in a way that is not without humour, that you expect more effort and better results of them. The divas and the lone wolves in the group need to realise that it is the wrong venue for solo concerts, that they are expected to contribute to the overall performance of the entire group. Strong solos from top-performing individuals, however, can be important for the oeuvre and should be recognised and utilised by the manager as required.

In the final analysis, it always comes down to finding and maintaining a balance between one’s own leadership acumen and the individual creativity within the team. “As a conductor, you need to remain true to yourself, completely centered and focused – until the moment comes when you let go,” says Gernot Schulz, sharing his ideas on orchestral conducting. Because whether we are talking about a musician in a symphony orchestra or a company employee, every team member brings with them a special set of skills and competencies acquired over time through training and work experience. Most teams and orchestras can get the job done without the boss or conductor.  The latter’s job is to develop strategies and define targets – and to act as a role model. Most of their work – 70 per cent of it – occurs non-verbally:

  • Intelligibility
  • Clarity
  • ell-measured cues
  • Resolve
  • Persuasiveness
  • Ability to inspire

There is no question: the parallels between conducting an orchestra and leading a team or business are surprisingly many. But for everyone who participates in conducting-based management seminars, the minute they mount the podium, baton in hand, and face the symphony orchestra, they enter entirely new terrain. Seminar participants enter a space in which the impact of their leading takes immediate form and articulation:

  • Do I have a clear idea of what I want to communicate? Do I have a vision?
  • Do I give clear direction/instructions?
  • Are my ideas and requests realistic/feasible?
  • Am I convincing?
  • Am I motivating?
  • Am I able to achieve the right mix of clear directions and empathy with my employees?

Conducting-based management seminars give participants the opportunity to try something completely new – the chance to lead without clichés, free of moralising value judgments and hackneyed management-speak. Participants work through core leadership issues as well as emotional and sensory perception in hands-on exercises with the orchestra.  First-hand experience and self-won insights like these last a lifetime.

Manfred Harnischfeger

Manfred Harnischfeger is a professor at the Hamburg Academy of Music and Drama’s Institute for Cultural and Media Management and is currently
the acting director of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. He has worked in the upper echelons of companies such as Bertelsmann and Deutsche Post DHL. His expertise lies in CEO positioning, crisis communications and change management.