A Conductor's View of Leadership

Itay Talgam’s take on leadership is inspiring.  Two million views of his Ted talk pay testament to that.  Here are some of his observations, based on his world of orchestral conductors.

The Israeli conductor says that simply commanding people is not enough.  Leaders need to emancipate people and encourage cooperation.  He refers to Italian conductor Riccardo Muti as an example of great talent and poor leadership.  Muti is known to be very stern and it’s his way or no way.  He allows no room for interpretation of music outside his own.  Talgam finds him a likeable man, but says that when he mounts the podium, he adopts a dictatorial style that causes stress for those around him.

He tells a great joke about Muti that could easily apply to many business leaders.  A violinist comes out of a concert hall and his friend asks him, “How was the concert with Muti?”  And the violinist replies: “Well, it was good – it could have been better but he wouldn't let us.”

For many leaders, results are paramount, as if enough in themselves.  The question is, at what cost?  Muti’s leadership style was no joke.  At one point, 700 La Scala employees are said to have signed a letter urging his resignation.  It suggests that even though the results were often great, what was happening on the way was very harmful and unsustainable.  Losing your followers is one sure way to destroy leadership and future success with it.

His own favourite conductor, as a role model for leadership, is the late Carlos Kleiber.  Although considered authoritative, Kleiber found a way to build a culture in which everyone had ownership of a certain type of interpretation – not through control of people, but of process, leaving individuals some space to find out how they could best fit into the process and get desired results.

Talgam says, “The idea that somebody has to know all the answers and preferably this somebody is in charge of everyone else, is, I think, totally wrong.”

Sometimes no one knows the answer and the leader’s job is to set the right conditions to allow others to discover possibilities and new solutions. “One great mistake is not allowing for mistakes: another is assuming that you can be the source of knowledge or solutions for your people.” 

For him, it is not about making sure the voice of the leader is always heard.   Talgam says that he recommends ‘keynote listening’ instead of ‘keynote speaking’. If you make people want to speak to you and in ways they would never have otherwise, you will discover new things.