The maestro myth of managing

28 April 2016

After last week’s TWOG on an “efficient orchestra”, this week’s takes a good look at the popular metaphor—really the deceptive myth—of the heroic leader as orchestra conductor: the managerial maestro on the podium.

A flick of the baton and marketing begins; a wave of the wand and production chimes in; a grand sweep of the arms and HR, PR, and IT join with perfect harmony. It’s a manager’s dream—all those obedient players. There are even conductors doing workshops for managers who believe they are leaders, and grander still, these people pretending to conduct real orchestras—with equivalent justification. 

To sober us all up, here are three quotes about this metaphor that I found in books. As you read them, we shall play a little game. Please vote for which best explain your understanding of managing. But there’s a trick: you must vote when you first read each, even if that is before you have read the others. But there’s a compensating trick: you can vote up to three times!

From Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru: One analogy [for the manager] is the conductor of a symphony orchestra, through whose effort, vision and leadership, individual instrumental parts that are so much noise by themselves, become the living whole of music. But the conductor has the composer’s score: he is only interpreter. The manager is both composer and conductor. (from The Practice of Management, 1954) Your vote for composer and conductor?

From Sune Carlson, a Swedish economist who carried out the first serious study of managerial work—managing directors of Swedish companies—in the 1940s: Before we made the study, I always thought of a chief executive as the conductor of an orchestra, standing aloof on his platform. Now I am in some respects inclined to see him as the puppet in the puppet-show with hundreds of people pulling the strings and forcing him to act in one way or another. (from Executive Behavior, 1951) Your vote for puppet?

From Len Sayles, who published an early study of middle managers in the United States: The manager is like a symphony orchestra conductor, endeavoring to maintain a melodious performance … while the orchestra members are having various personal difficulties, stage hands are moving music stands, alternating excessive heat and cold are creating audience and instrumental problems, and the sponsor of the concert is insisting on irrational changes in the program. (from Managerial Behavior, 1964)1 Your vote for disruption?

Which did you choose? I use this game when I do workshops with managers (they let me do them, even though I am not an orchestra conductor). The results are almost always the same. There are a few votes for the first (because people are suspicious about what’s coming next), and a few more for the second. But when I read the third, all the hands go up! Managers are like orchestra conductors all right, but away from pretentious performing. Myths abound in management; that’s what many of these TWOGs are about. Beware of metaphors that glorify.

And the same can be said about orchestra conductors. Are they managers, even leaders? Outside of performance, certainly both, together. (As discussed in an earlier TWOG, good managers lead and good leaders manage.) They select the musicians, and the music, and during rehearsals synchronize them all into a coherent whole.2 But watch a conductor in performance: it is mostly just that—performance. Sure there is all that flailing of the arms, just like in the picture above. (Better still, have a good look at “orchestra conductors” on Google Images, a bit of which is reproduced below. What a cacophony!). Have a glance at the musicians during performance: they barely look at the conductor—who, by the way, may well be a guest conductor. Can you imagine a guest manager anywhere else?  

Bear in mind who is pulling the strings: Beethoven, a lot more than any Toscanini. Each musician is playing to the notes written for his or her instrument by the composer. So let’s revisit Drucker’s comment: it is the composer who is both composer and conductor!

Sure the conductor has a role to play in performance, just like the bassoonists. Somebody has to start the music and set the pace. But don’t tell me that all that arm waving is not significantly show—albeit part of the entertainment. Shakespeare had it right: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players…” That includes managers as well as conductors, not to mention “leaders”.

The concertgoers, there because they love inspiring music, need to express their delight somehow. Much of this really belongs to Beethoven, but he’s dead. And how to thank so many musicians? So the Toscanini’s get most of the attention—as the symbol of everyone’s effort—with a bit left over for a bassoonist or two (with the conductor’s permission), not to mention the soloist. Do the conductors really deserve all that veneration? Of course orchestras play better with some conductors than others. But the same can be said of each musician on the stage. Tell me: when you hear a really great symphony on the radio, do you give the conductor a standing ovation?

By this point, if you know anything about orchestras, you are probably outraged. Who is this ignoramus? I have had running debates for years with people who know better, including a member of the family who is a prominent music critic. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I don’t know how to play any musical instrument, nor have I ever conducted an orchestra (although I love listening to Tchaikovsky). Yet, as noted above, I do conduct workshops for managers; I even compose these TWOGs. So I too am both composer and conductor.

Look, all of the above is not true. As I shall discuss next week (“The truth about Truth”), nothing is true. Or at least there are no whole truths, at best only half-truths. So it is true that conductors make a difference, just as it is true that their gyrations are so often overblown.3 And it is true that managing is like orchestra conducting, at least when things are going wrong. But truer still is that neither managers nor conductors belong on the podium of heroic leadership.

1 Notice that all three quotes are over a half-century old. Did any seem out-of-date? Here is another myth shot to hell: that every thought about management has to be current—terribly up-to-date. In subject matter, to be sure: about what is being managed. But not in process: about how it is being done. As I discuss in my book Simply Managing, because management is largely a practice, not a science or a profession, its essence hardly changes. Just like orchestra conducting.

2 See my article “Covert Leadership” where I describe observing a conductor in rehearsal for a day. I also observed a guest conductor—a famous violinist—during rehearsal one morning at the Tanglewood Music Festival, and mostly he was playing his instrument, with the occasional flick of his bow in the general direction of the musicians.

3 The Internet is loaded with videos about conductors as leaders. Go to the one with Itay Talgam. It really does capture both sides. Notice especially the moment when Leonard Bernstein raises an eyebrow, definitive proof that there is substance in performance!

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. I will be composing and conducting at a one-day workshop in Holland on November 8, Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page.