The end of the conductor?

Arts ensembles provide the blueprint for a more collaborative leadership style
By Nick Nissley
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2007

The concept of leadership is undergoing a change that is erasing the distinction between leaders and followers and challenging the current understanding of leaders and teams.

The emerging picture of the future of leadership is one where the practice of leadership will no longer be thought of as something initiated solely by an individual leader. Rather, leadership is being redefined to include reciprocal connections of people working together.

Collaboration, shared leadership and the characteristics of an arts ensemble, versus a traditional team metaphor, may be more helpful in shaping the future understanding of team leadership.

Almost 20 years ago, management guru Peter Drucker published an article in the

Harvard Business Review

in which he speculated about emerging views of leadership. He suggested the relevancy of a leadership model analogous to a symphony orchestra, where it’s the job of the conductor to singly influence the group’s performance. However, within the past two decades, more collaborative approaches to leadership have emerged in practice and in the leadership literature.

Five years ago, Harvey Seifter, the then-executive director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York City (billed as the world’s only conductor-less orchestra), offered an alternative to Drucker’s view of “leaders as conductors.”

Seifter realized that experiences of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra raised a strikingly different possibility. Rather than relying on a charismatic, visionary leader who conducts the team through command and control management, he suggested it might be possible to think of team leadership where all members share responsibility for the team’s leadership.

The members of the Orpheus Orchestra found their inspiration in chamber music, a world grounded in democratic values, where small ensembles of generally fewer than 10 musicians function as self-managing teams and where motivation, power and responsibility rest entirely in the hands of the people doing the work.

This self-governing organization is not an organization without leadership. Rather, the ensemble — the organizing structure of the chamber music orchestra — has many leaders who rise to leadership roles based on the orchestra’s needs. In his book

Leadership Ensemble

, Seifter articulates the lessons in collaborative leadership that can be learned from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Recently, Canadian management guru Henry Mintzberg, from Montreal’s McGill University, has similarly suggested that the leader as conductor metaphor is less relevant to current leadership challenges. He suggests a more collaborative notion of leadership — something he calls “community-ship” — where organizations are “communities of co-operation.”

So what must leaders unlearn about traditional views of the leader as conductor and how can a chamber music ensemble offer new insights into traditional views of team leadership? The idea and practice of a leadership ensemble, as suggested by Seifter, can be described in the following core principles.

Put power in the hands of people doing the work.

Where power and decision-making authority are widely distributed, the team’s creative potential can be fully-realized.

Encourage individual responsibility.

Instead of waiting for a supervisor or manager to flag or fix problems, individuals are empowered to take responsibility.

Create clarity of roles.

Clear roles minimize confusion, conflict, poor quality and low employee morale by ensuring an individual’s energies are most effectively focused.

Share and rotate leadership.

By sharing and rotating leadership, teams can benefit from the unique strengths of each individual and begin to create a culture of collaboration.

Dedicate passionately to the mission.

Like artistic ensembles, which thrive on the creation of beautifully crafted performances, an organization that is similarly passionate and has a mission that is determined by the members themselves find heightened engagement and commitment to the team’s goals.

Nick Nissley is the executive director of leadership development at The Banff Centre, a creative leadership development centre in Banff, Alta. He can be reached at nick_nissley@banffcentre.ca.


What’s cooking?

New team-building craze heats up

In order for an organization to take on a team leadership approach, it must first invest in building strong teams. One of the newest trends in team-building activities takes people out of the office and puts them in the kitchen.

Andrea Mut, the director and chef of the cookery school at the Waring House in Picton, Ont., has seen her business grow dramatically in the past two years.

“When I took over at the school, the previous director said I would probably have four to six (team-building events) a year and I’ve been having at least two a month,” she said.

The cooking school in eastern Ontario attracts businesses from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal looking for ways to build strong teams and engage employees.

The cooking classes are a fun alternative to other team building activities like rope courses or boat building, which can be daunting for many employees. But with cooking, most people are quite willing to step into the kitchen and pick up a spatula.

“It’s fun and relaxing. They’re not so under pressure, so they can be themselves. As opposed to being in a team-building exercise where you’re really pushed out of your comfort zone, this is more relaxed and casual,” said Mut. “People can really be themselves.”

The classes are all about co-operation and working together, she said. Usually two people work together on one recipe and, at the end of the three-hour class, everyone sits down to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

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