An innovative experiential leadership session: The Music Paradigm

Maestro - Music ParadigmAt the recent Medical Group Management Association PEER Conference, I had the good fortune to attend a fascinating opening session created by Roger Nierenberg of The Music Paradigm. Roger, Music Director of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra and a guest conductor around the world, uses a semi-impromptu exploration of the work of an orchestral conductor to illustrate a host of lessons about leadership.

When we entered the large performance room, we found, not the traditional orchestral layout, but clumps of professional orchestra players scattered amongst our seats. During the session we sat “inside” the orchestra, experiencing Roger and the other musicians as the orchestra did, rather than as audience members.

Roger started by telling us that many of the professional musicians present had not worked with him before that morning and that the session was not scripted, and he asked players and audience to be honest with their comments and responses.

Roger then conducted a ten-minute piece of orchestral music that was to be our musical touchstone for the session. During the remainder of the session, various excerpts from this piece were repeated, preceded with Roger’s instructions and followed by solicited observations from audience & orchestra members and Roger’s commentary.

Random audience members and musicians were asked for their honest responses and observations after each musical experiment; the session was in no way canned, and, being experiential, a written account obviously cannot do it justice. However, I’m sharing my notes in order to give a sense of the powerful learning a session like this can provide. I’ve italicized Roger’s words:

Roger compared his role as an orchestra conductor to the paradigm of leadership, to the work of leading change.

He began by instructing his orchestra I want this to be big & wonderful, and then proceeded to conduct “flat”, illustrating the problems that arise when leaders say one thing and do another.

Then Roger announced he would be very engaged, and over-directed a soloist. Afterward, the soloist described herself as “stifled”. Soloists, Roger told us, like to take control during solos and not have the conductor in their face—they will shut out conductors who over-direct. The parallel to micromanaging staff was obvious.

It’s such an easy thing for an orchestra to hate a conductor.

Roger asked Why a conductor at all? He demonstrated by not conducting a selection that included abrupt, unrehearsed change. The orchestra did a magnificent job, but sounded ragged. Egos won’t help. The lesson: good leadership requires specific direction at the right time, so everyone can execute together. A leader becomes more critically important the more change there is. The soloist who had to start illustrated another lesson—she thanked the rest of the orchestra for supporting her.

The baton: The tools of leadership are pretty simple.

Roger shared …the conductor’s nightmare: I’ll commit and nobody plays.

He demonstrated the following concepts:

Don’t get out too far in front of the group.
The perils of an unclear signal.
I’ll show you the way, but you’ll go there.

Conductors listen for stuff going wrong and fix it. And they also listen for the things that people are doing right. Take what the orchestra gives you and work with it. Listen for what could be.

Roger illustrated having the first violinist as right-hand man when you’re not around.

It’s hard to separate out ego needs. Make it clear to players how they work together.

Shared leadership: Sometimes an instrument leads.

If they trusted me today, that was because of what I did. You can’t ask for trust, you can earn it.

There are a lot of conductors who specialize in passion. This nauseates the orchestra.

An orchestra notices that conductor knows the score by heart.

On hearing something wrong during playing: Get together and check that note. Notice, I didn’t say who was right.

They feel more about your enthusiasm for their playing than my giving them a compliment.

conductingMusicians are trained to work together; physicians are trained as soloists.

If you can see the big picture, the more you can help orchestra members see it.

Roger’s last comment particularly resonated with me, for the times when I’m facilitating group process at a conference: My connection with orchestra members is a conduit for them to connect with each other.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Music Paradigm, finding it an effective way to explore many aspects of functional & dysfunctional leadership via an audience’s experience of the ways a conductor might lead an orchestra. If you’re looking for a unique and effective way to demonstrate multiple facets of leadership and guiding principles to your organization, check it out! And, if you have the opportunity to attend a Music Paradigm session, don’t miss it!

Photo attributions: The Music Paradigm