As I come to the end of my first full school year as a superintendent, I have been reflecting on the challenges and successes of leadership. As part of my reflective process, I revisited one of my favorite TED talks: Itay Talgam‘s Lead Like the Great Conductors.
I suppose my fascination for leadership stems from one of my other passions from a previous life, conducting. Here are some of the excerpts from the talk that are impacting my reflection:
- “…in front of all that noise…and suddenly, out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music. And this is fantastic. And it’s so tempting to think it’s all about me. All those great people here, virtuosos, they make noise, they need me to do that. Not really.” A leader is just one piece in a larger, complex system. Leadership is not about a select few at the top.
- “…he’s spreading happiness….the important thing is this happiness does not come from only his story and his joy of the music. The joy is about enabling other people’s stories to be heard at the same time. You have the stories of the individuals in the orchestra and in the audience. And then you have other stories, unseen. People who build this wonderful concert hall. People who made those Stradivarius, Amati, all those beautiful instruments. And all those stories are being heard at the same time.” A leader engages many voices in telling their story. Through his/her actions, a leader creates the culture whereby everyone’s story can be heard. Culture is part of the story as well.
- Regarding conductor Ricardo Muti’s style: “So not only the instruction is clear, but also the sanction, what will happen if you don’t do what I tell you. So, does it work? Yes, it works — to a certain point. When Muti is asked, ‘Why do you conduct like this?’ He says, ‘I’m responsible. If I’m responsible for Mozart, this is going to be the only story to be told. It’s Mozart as I, Riccardo Muti, understand it.’ How do musicians respond to this style? ‘You’re using us as instruments, not as partners.'” A top-down leadership style kills culture because only one person owns the story.
- Regarding Herbert von Karajan, former conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic: “…the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that would prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra.” Autonomy is a responsibility that requires hard work, but what is the alternative?
- “It’s like being on a rollercoaster. You’re not really given any instructions, but the forces of the process itself keep you in place. That’s what he does. The interesting thing is of course the rollercoaster does not really exist. It’s not a physical thing. It’s in the players’ heads. And that’s what makes them into partners. You have the plan in your head. You know what to do, even though Kleiber is not conducting you. But here and there and that. You know what to do. And you become a partner building the rollercoaster, yeah, with sound, as you actually take the ride. This is very exciting for those players. It is very tiring. But it’s the best music making, like this.” Creating something new and worthwhile is a partnership between the leader and everyone in the organization is working together. A compelling vision keeps everyone moving in the same direction, even though it’s sometimes messy and unclear. The leader sets process and conditions while others tell their story. This kind of creativity can be very rewarding and exciting for everyone.
- “Lenny Bernstein always started from the meaning… Now it’s about you, the player, telling the story. Now it’s a reversed thing. And you’re telling the story. And even briefly, you become the storyteller to which the community, the whole community, listens. And Bernstein enables that. Isn’t that wonderful?” A clear “why” provides the context for the storytelling.
- “Now, if you are doing all the things we talked about, together, and maybe some others, you can get to this wonderful point of doing without doing… If you love something, give it away.” Start with a compelling “why,” establish processes and conditions, and provide the space for everyone to contribute to the story and you will have reached a point where what fuels the organization is inside-out rather than outside-in.
It’s powerful to approach our leadership through the lens of inquiry, so here are some questions I have been asking myself as part of the reflection process:
- The “why”: What is our compelling why?
- The story: Are the conditions set for everyone to tell their story? Is everyone prepared to tell their story? How is that expectation communicated? Who owns the story? How do I know? Like in the Bernstein example, am I giving it away?
- The work: When the work is messy and unclear, what processes and conditions are in place to support others through the challenge? Who gets the applause?
- The accountability: Is everyone experiencing autonomy as a motivator? Are we operating in what David Marquet refers to as a leader-leader paradigm or the more traditional leader-follower. What does accountability (one of those conditions) look like?
How do you reflect on your leadership?
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