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Leadership Ensemble Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World's Only Conductorless Orchestra

By Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy Published by Times Books October 2001; $25.00US/$37.95CAN; 0-8050-6692-6


A dynamic new model for effective management, from an organization known around the world for its innovative structure.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has earned rave reviews as one of the premier musical ensembles in the world. Recently, it has also attracted the attention and admiration of the corporate world. As the only major orchestra that rehearses, performs, and records without a conductor, Orpheus is a shining example of a new management style based on collaborative leadership. 

coverLeadership Ensemble shows business leaders in any industry how to re-create the successful "Orpheus Process" in their own companies by dismantling top-heavy hierarchies; developing flexible, responsive strategies and decision-making procedures; and unleashing employee creativity, responsibility, and productivity. Based on three decades of performing experience and more than five years' partnership with corporations such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Orpheus has identified and refined eight core principles, along with practical steps for putting the principles into practice and potential traps and landmines: 

  • Put Power in the Hands of the People Doing the Work discusses how to give employees, at all levels of a company, decision-making skills and authority, with examples from J. P. Morgan Chase. 
  • Encourage Individual Responsibility for Product and Quality reviews ways to improve performance as well as accountability, including insights from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. 
  • Create Clarity of Roles discusses how to improve interaction and collaboration through job descriptions and responsibilities, with examples from Ritz-Carlton. 
  • Share and Rotate Leadership demonstrates how to take advantage of all employees' expertise and creativity, including a look at W. L. Gore's workplace. 
  • Foster Horizontal Teamwork reviews how to build effective, cross-departmental problem-solving work groups, including practices at the San Diego Zoo and Russell Reynolds Associates. 
  • Learn to Listen, Learn to Talk provides guidelines for effective communication in a "flat" organization, with examples from Intel.
  • Seek Consensus demonstrates structures for inspiring employees to reach shared goals, including a review of Sturman Industries. 
  • Dedicate Passionately to Your Mission offers insight into building your corporate strategies around both employees' motivations and the bottom line, with examples from Stonyfield Farm. 

Spiced with anecdotes and lessons from Orpheus's day-to-day business and long-term strategies, as well as practical steps and potential obstacles drawn from the corporate world, Leadership Ensemble is an entertaining, eminently practical guide to implementing changes that are essential to survival in today's fast-paced business environment. 

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
, founded in 1972, is based at New York's renowned Carnegie Hall, has been honored with four Grammy awards, and is frequently profiled by the arts and business media. 

Harvey Seifter, a classically trained musician, is the executive director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and has successfully managed a number of performing arts organizations in both New York and San Francisco. He lives in New York City.

Peter Economy is an associate editor for Leader to Leader magazine and the coauthor of At the Helm: Business Lessons for Navigating Rough Waters. He lives in California.

J. Richard Hackman is the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and the author of Leading Teams

The following is an excerpt from the book:
Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World's Only Conductorless Orchestra
By Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy Published by Times Books; October 2001; $25.00US/$37.95CAN; 0-8050-6692-6
Copyright © 2004 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy

Hierarchy in Information-Based Organizations 

As Peter Drucker noted, orchestras, like hospitals and universities, are "information-based organizations," composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through organized feedback from colleagues, customers, and the organization's management. 

Orchestras add one more element to the mix: a single manager who leads the organization in preparation (rehearsal) and execution (performance) -- the conductor. A conductor's work, as portrayed by Elizabeth Green in The Modern Conductor, might also describe a successful CEO leading any organization: "To stand in front of an orchestra, band, or chorus and beat time does not make one a conductor. But to bring forth thrilling music from a group of singers or players, to inspire them (through one's own personal magnetism) to excel, to train them (through one's own musicianship) to become musicians themselves, personally to feel the power of music so deeply that the audience is lifted to new heights emotionally . . . yes, this can be called conducting."

But the job of conducting encompasses much more than inspiration and education. Conductors are also specifically trained to micromanage. They select the music and the musicians who play it, and determine exactly how each piece will sound by making thousands of decisions about tempo, phrasing, volume, and balance -- details that govern each musician's playing and ultimately determine the character of the musical performance. Conductors are expected to have strong opinions, backed by knowledge about the technical capabilities and challenges of each instrument of the orchestra. These opinions are rarely open for question or discussion. 

Conductors stand at the very pinnacle of their orchestras' musical hierarchies, in roles that go far beyond those of most corporate CEOs or presidents. Instead of directly supervising the activities of a relatively small team of vice presidents or top managers as do most chief executives, conductors directly supervise the activities of each and every musician in the orchestra. They are expected to exact uniformity from large groups, down to the smallest details, and any failure to invoke that authority is likely to be perceived as weakness. When asked if the orchestra conductor is a good model for leadership in business, Ben Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, was unequivocal in his response. "It's the worst! The conductor is the last bastion of totalitarianism in the world -- the one person whose authority never gets questioned. There's a saying: Every dictator aspires to be a conductor."

Many conductors are resistant, if not downright hostile, to receiving input from the musicians who actually play the music. Such conductors literally rule their orchestras with an iron baton. The stories are legendary. Zander recounts one about the renowned maestro Arturo Toscanini: "It is said that once in the middle of a rehearsal, in a fit of anger, he fired a long-standing member of the double bass section, who now had to return home to tell his wife that he was out of a job. As the bass player packed up his instrument, he mentioned a few things that he had hitherto kept to himself, and, as he left the hall for the final time, shouted at Toscanini, 'You are a no-good son of a bitch!' So oblivious was Toscanini to the notion that a player would dare to challenge his authority, that he roared back: 'It is too late to apologize!"

With such attitudes, it's not surprising that orchestral musicians tend to keep their most original and creative impulses to themselves, rather than risk the fury of a conductor who neither wants nor expects input. The inevitable result is that the musicians are detached from their product, the music they create with their instruments. Says jazz guitarist Mark Worrell, "In a symphonic context, you find 'workers' with fabulous talents, formal training, and an abundance of theoretical knowledge, and yet strangely enough these musicians are forced to separate their capacity for conceptualization from the moment of execution. This is an incredibly authoritarian and antidemocratic model of musical production. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the symphony itself is a mass celebration of authoritarianism -- perhaps even charismatic dictatorship."

This kind of environment makes the traditional symphony orchestra a prime example of the tension that exists between traditional hierarchy's command-and-control structures and the knowledge worker's inherent bias toward self-management. Since it is the knowledge workers who provide the intellectual and creative capital that drive all information-based organizations, alternative management models that succeed in transforming the orchestra can have potentially wide-ranging applicability. 

The Orpheus Process: No Conductor, Many Leaders 

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has developed just such an alternative model. Our approach to orchestral leadership -- eliminating the role of the conductor and dividing those responsibilities among the twenty-seven members of the orchestra -- is radically different from that employed by any other orchestra in the world. 

Orpheus has many leaders. Individual musicians constantly rotate formal leadership roles, while others spontaneously take on ad hoc leadership responsibilities in response to organizational needs and the specific demands of each piece of music. In fact, everyone in Orpheus is expected to become a leader at some time, ensuring that we sustain a unique multileadered organization that fully engages and flexibly deploys the creative abilities and energies of each member. Time and again in my years with Orpheus, I have seen this reservoir of leadership give the group an unparalleled range and depth of talent to draw upon in performance. This extraordinary organizational resource has fueled Orpheus's three-decade success story. 

The Orpheus Process has been refined over the years to allow the group to consistently and efficiently transfer the communal creativity of a small, four-piece chamber music group into the much larger setting of an orchestra, which can sometimes swell to forty musicians or more. There are five key elements: 

1. Choosing Leaders. For each piece of music performed by Orpheus, the musicians select a leadership team of five to ten players, called the core. A committee of musicians, themselves elected by all the members of the orchestra, selects a concertmaster, the first-chair violinist who in chamber music ensembles is traditionally recognized as "first among equals" and in conducted orchestras has a role in some ways analogous to a shop foreman. In Orpheus, the concertmaster anchors the core, leads performances, and works closely with all the musicians to develop a unified vision for the music along the way. Other instrumental sections (cellos, oboes, etc.) then choose individuals to represent them on the leadership team. 

2. Developing Strategies. The core meets to decide how the selected piece of music will be played, developing an overall interpretive approach to the music before it is taken to the full orchestra. These meetings take the form of rehearsals where many different approaches can be tried in a streamlined fashion. 

3. Developing the Product (the Music). When the core is satisfied with its approach to the piece, it is taken to the full orchestra to be rehearsed and refined even further. Immediately after each piece is played in rehearsal, musicians from throughout the orchestra call out suggestions to improve the interpretation or to critique the playing of their fellow orchestra members. Sometimes smaller debates over style, tempo, balance, and other musical nuances ensue within the different sections of the orchestra. When disagreements arise, the members of the orchestra work to reach a consensus-hashing out the issues face-to-face, in real time. If they still can't reach an agreement after a reasonable period of debate, then a vote is taken and the issue is settled. 

4. Perfecting the Product (the Music). Immediately before every concert, a small number of members are deputized to leave their seats onstage and go out into the hall, so they can suggest final adjustments and refinements based on the actual sound of the full orchestra. 

5. Delivering the Product (the Music). The final step is performance, the ultimate result of the Orpheus Process. After each concert the members of the orchestra talk to one another about ideas for further refinements to the piece -- ideas that may make their way into the next performance.

Copyright © 2004 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy