What great conductors can teach us about leadership

The comparisons between running an orchestra and a business in The Ignorant Maestro give plenty to think about, says Jeremy Woods.

by Jeremy Woods
Last Updated: 10 Sep 2015

Itay Talgam believes in the gift of the gap. He also believes you should embrace your own ignorance which, after all, is an opportunity. En route to the missing, you'll discover the unexpected.

There is no snappy definition of a Talgam-type 'gap'. A conductor trained under all-round musical giant Leonard Bernstein, he has worked with orchestras including the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic. And since he now teaches leadership to Fortune 500 companies, academic and non-profit organisations, I reckon he might prefer us to show some initiative and create our own gaps.

Let's take his two worlds. Big business and classical music have little in common, right? So yes - there's a gap. But Talgam is looking at how an orchestral conductor, as leader of 70 or 80 musicians, gets a unified and meaningful performance for all concerned - including the audience.

His key messages are not that startling. Space (gaps again) makes for creativity, empowerment and occasional unpredictable brilliance. So don't be afraid to take a less rigid approach. Be a 'keynote listener' rather than a keynote speaker. Take everyone involved with you, but keep in mind that complete creative freedom for all is not practical. The key is balance between individual freedom and structure.

Conductors are a natural choice for Talgam's leadership microscope, and it's a great USP for his book. His analysis of their methods will get you thinking, regardless of what you know about conducting or leadership. The parallels for business are easy to spot.

He looks at six conductors (all male, there are unfortunately still very few women conductors) and how they led, whether as dictators, collaborators, visionaries, father figures or gurus. What could all that arm waving teach anyone operating in a more conventional working environment?

Take Herbert von Karajan, on paper probably the most successful conductor of the 20th century. In one respect he tore up the conducting manual - his time beating was often vague. Karajan thought constant 'instruction' drew the musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic's attention slavishly to him. At first a necessity, taking care of the time-keeping for themselves (with eye contact, nods and swaying) became second nature for the musicians, and freed Karajan for greater control of textures and balance.

Carlos Kleiber took things further and at times stopped conducting in the literal sense altogether, just smiling encouragement back to the orchestra. Although his was a high-risk, high-reward strategy, trust was given and received in return.

By contrast Riccardo Muti, the only surviving conductor in the book, is famously controlling. Little is open to interpretation by the musicians. Talgam acknowledges that Muti is a brilliant conductor, but his point is this: although a gifted micromanager will achieve all their objectives nearly all the time, that is the limit of what they will achieve. Just as a CEO obsessed with driving numbers might hit their targets but miss big opportunities along the way.

Talgam's also happy to talk us through some of his less successful performances: believe me, that's rare in a conductor. He once arranged the string section of the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra into lots of quartets, giving them far more individual responsibility than with the conventional set up. His mistake, he admits, was not talking to his audience in advance. He didn't make them 'stakeholders' in an experiment, winning them over and taking pressure off the musicians. It failed for all concerned. So when trying something new, take everyone on the journey with you, and make sure everyone is empowered for the challenge.

The book is not as funny to read as his TED talk is to watch - Talgam does great 'stand up' - but I'd recommend both. Read about the conductors first, get a picture in your mind, then watch the clips. You'll enjoy deciding which conductor you, or your boss, most resemble in style.

A final thought: I enjoyed his analogy of the river; it keeps flowing, like a business or a piece of music, and it can't be stopped. Don't try (although freezing and cutting it into blocks was a suggestion once made to Talgam at a talk). Control it by building channels or dams in the right places. Go with that flow, but always keep the possibility for change alive.

The Ignorant Maestro by Itay Talgam is published by Portfolio Penguin at £14.99

Jeremy Woods is a consultant specialising in classical and contemporary music, concert production and touring.

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