February 22, 2010

Leadership - Learning from a Maestro

I recently listened to an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with conductor Lorin Maazel. This child prodigy, now 79 years old, imparted some remarkable insights on leadership. Take a minute to learn from the maestro.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a conductor would have keen insight on leadership. The definition of a conductor is “a leader of a musical ensemble.” Maazel likens a conductor to a stage director: “Actors know their parts, but the director is responsible for the overall picture.” A conductor has 100 players spread out over a stage, and each knows how to play his instrument. But an oboist does not know what a violinist is playing. The conductor brings it all together by knowing the extent each instrument can be pushed to achieve an interpretive goal.

Likewise, a leader has employees, most likely not even all on the same stage. Virtual teams use the instruments of the mobile workforce (cell phones, laptops, Web conferencing, Wikis, etc.). Leaders develop collaborative relationships that benefit from boundaries and structures generated by a manager’s positional power to achieve success.

Command is about respect and firmly establishing credibility. But a leader cannot command respect. The way a conductor earns respect is by knowing the musical score and understanding the problems the players will encounter playing it – just as a leader earns respect by knowing the business and understanding the problems the employees will face. With respect comes the willingness and eagerness to be guided or led. According to Maazel, earning respect is not the same as earning friendship. A leader won’t last long if she takes the people out drinking at the local bar. Maazel says, “You don’t have to curry favor by being nice; you’re just nice because you are nice. If you’re affectionate and have friendly feeling towards people trying so hard to do their best, then you will win their affection, too.”

There is a debate among leadership experts about whether corporate leaders are born or made. Maazel, who possesses absolute (perfect) pitch and a photographic memory, believes that one is born with potential – be it playing chess, tennis or writing: “In theater, there are actors who walk on stage and don’t do anything and have a commanding presence. Others walk out screaming and tearing their hair, and you want to yawn because it is so boring.” Your full potential can be achieved only with discipline. You have to have both to be successful.

On the topic of making a difference, Maazel’s sage advice is, “If you want to make a difference, never say anything that’s not going to make a difference. I want to improve things. I don’t just stop the orchestra to hear myself talk. If I say something that will not make it sound different, I’m wasting my time and I’m wasting their time.” In the rapidly changing business world of today, time is critical and is not to be wasted.

When you began reading this post, you may have conjured up the mental model of a conductor who is a long-haired eccentric, flaying his arms, madly waving a baton and yelling at the players. Maazel agrees that there have been abusive conductors who did a disservice to the reputation of the profession. Losing your temper is a non-energizer. Likewise with a business leader, the best approach is to carry authority with honor, maximizing each employee’s potential with caring words and positive reinforcement. If an employee is not reaching his full potential, a constructive conversation should ensue, affirming the employee (I know you are a good employee) and then probing for collaborative next steps (I know this is not the impression that you want to give. How can we work this out together?).

Before taking his final bow, Maazel’s concluded the interview with six tips:
- Earn respect. Remember how difficult it is to follow someone you don’t respect.
- Strike a balance between confidence and humility.
- Don’t be nice to curry favor. Be nice just to be nice.
- Speak when you have something valuable to say. Otherwise, shut up.
- To lead, energize.
- Don’t demand perfection. Demand passion.

Thank you maestro.

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