The Maestro Myth of Managing

28 January 2019

This TWOG is from my new book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, modified from the original posting on 28 April 2016.

Picture the managerial maestro on the podium: a flick of the baton and marketing opens; a wave of the wand and sales chimes in; a grand sweep of the arms and HR, PR, and IT harmonize. It’s a manager’s dream—you can even attend leadership workshops orchestrated by conductors.

Here are three quotes about this metaphor. As you read them, we’ll play a little game. Please vote for which quote best captures your understanding of managing. But there’s a trick: you must vote after you read each, before you have read any other. There is, however, 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.   

Your vote for the manager as composer and conductor?

From Sune Carlson, a Swedish economist who carried out the first serious study of managerial work, of Swedish CEOs:

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.

Your vote for the manager as puppet?

From Leonard Sayles, who studied 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.

Your vote for the manager in rehearsal?

Which did you choose? I have used this game with many groups of managers. The results are always the same. A few hands might go up for the first 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 performance, to the everyday grind. Beware of metaphors that glorify.

As for orchestra conductors, are they managers at all, even leaders? Outside of performance, certainly both, together. They select the musicians and the music and, during rehearsals, blend them into a coherent whole. But watch a conductor in performance: it is mostly that—performance. Better still, watch the musicians during performance: they barely look at the conductor—who, by the way, may be a guest conductor. Can you imagine a guest manager anywhere else? 

Who is pulling the strings: Toscanini or Tchaikovsky? Actually, the musicians do that, but each plays the notes written for his or her instrument by the composer, all together. So it is the composer who is both composer and conductor. But since the composers are dead, the conductors get the acclaim.

Maybe all the world really is a stage, with all the composers, conductors, managers, and players merely players. If so, no one manager belongs on the podium of lofty leadership.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016, 2019. For more on Bedtime Stories for Managers, or to order it, click here.

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. To help disseminate these blogs, we also have a LinkedIn page and a Facebook page.