What words do we use to describe a team that’s functioning well? Whether we realize it or not, we often use musical terminology. We say we’re “in unison,” making a “concerted” effort, “attuned” to each others’ concerns, and, at our best, “harmonious.” In a sterile office environment, it may seem difficult to draw substantive parallels between our workgroups and a professional orchestra. Yet conductor Roger Nierenberg has gleaned lessons about collaboration and leadership for businesses and other organizations from the inner workings of a world-class musical ensemble.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to take part in an unusual workshop that Nierenberg offers, called “The Music Paradigm.” (Nierenberg has recently written a book, Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening, based on this work.) When participants enter the room, they encounter an orchestra, its members clad in formal performance garb, waiting to play. Executives are encouraged to sit side-by-side with musicians.

The program begins with a brief concert. It turns out that a symphonic performance serves as an ideal laboratory for studying organizational dynamics: Observers can easily view the entire system; communication is transparent, and the connection between behavior and results happens immediately.

Nierenberg points out that, like a business, an orchestra has an “org chart”: Each “division”–such as strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion–is divided into “teams.” The strings division consists of five teams: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. The audience compares the results when the orchestra plays normally and when one of the teams is out of sync or missing altogether. This experience dramatizes the interdependence of the group as a whole and the importance of each team to the quality of the final “product.” 

social loafing at work

To illustrate the impact of different leadership approaches on performance, the orchestra plays the same selection in several ways: as they normally would with a conductor, without a conductor, with the conductor carefully controlling every aspect of the performance, and with a “guest conductor”–someone from the audience. Even the untrained ear can perceive variations in the style and tone of the different scenarios.

When asked to perform without a leader, the orchestra plays accurately, but the music lacks emotion and pace. When Nierenberg micromanages the performance, the group sounds stilted and flat. When the inexperienced conductor stands in, the performance is tentative and uneven. But when the maestro confidently wields the baton again, the musicians respond with a lush and expansive rendition.

In describing their experiences under a controlling leadership style, the musicians report that the group may be together in terms of timing, but they give less emotionally and feel less able to make their own unique contributions to the overall effort than in the other scenarios. The leader’s dominant style blocks the flow of information, isolates the players from their network of colleagues, and squelches their creativity.

Nierenberg describes the group’s performance without a conductor as “business as usual.” In the absence of guidance from the podium, the players turn their eyes to the concertmaster and listen to each other with greater intensity. In this way, they manage to work together remarkably well.

That observation raises the question: If an orchestra can function successfully without a leader, then what purpose does a conductor–or general manager, president, or CEO–serve? Nierenberg suggests that the leader’s first job is to provide others with a sense of the big picture. From his or her central position, a conductor is able to see and hear the whole, gather information, and convey that information to the group.

A skilled conductor, for instance, infuses the notes of a musical score with meaning, that inspires richness, depth, and emotion in the performance of the orchestra. In this way, Nierenberg argues, strategic, visionary leadership can make a qualitative difference in a team’s functioning.

Conductors don’t make music directly; the people they lead do. A skilled conductor focuses on enabling musicians to execute their jobs well: revealing things about the music to the players, showing them what’s important, and lifting them out of their silos. Likewise, in organizations of all kinds, good leaders elevate people’s awareness beyond their day-to-day tasks by articulating a unifying vision and sense of new possibilities.