LEADING WITH A
"The collective work takes on the look of an ensemble of artists."
"This level of leadership bases itself upon the assumption that those working for you have integrity and capacity, and that you intend to allow them the freedom which is necessary to let themselves flower."
When a Great Leader governs,
The people hardly notice his authority.
Almost as good is the leader who is revered and loved.
Lower than that is the one who rules through fear.
The worst type is the leader who is despised by his subjects.
If one doesn’t trust the people,
They cannot be depended upon to prove themselves.
The Great Leader speaks briefly
And is not careless with words;
Although the leader acts,
Every trace of each action disappears into the work itself.
When it is finished,
The people say: “How amazing! We accomplished this all by ourselves.”
Lao Tzu: The Tao Te Ching (paraphrased)
One of the great pleasures and challenges in conducting an orchestra is the opportunity to accompany a soloist. Although you are leading the ensemble, every musical decision is made in context of another musician – an equal partner in the project. The speed of the piece, the stylistic qualities, the sense of rubato – the amount of moving forward or slowing down in a phrase – all take into account the musical approach of your guest soloist. The conductor’s job is to meld the orchestra into a perfect collaborator - ready to be supportive in accompaniment and to take the role of a musical equal when playing alone.
If a concerto is the most obvious manifestation of musical collaboration, the concert is also an equally shared musical creation. The baton will sometimes be active and sometimes passive. Individual musicians will be encouraged to think of themselves as temporary drivers of the orchestral vehicle. In the course of a concert the role of leader will often move instantaneously between podium and the individual members of the orchestra. At one point the conductor is in control; in the next moment leadership is ceded to the clarinetist, or the oboist – all others in the ensemble supporting that temporary reassignment. The musicians understand this ongoing dance and respond in such a way that the entire dialogue is so subtle that it goes largely unnoticed.
Conducting can seem to be so authoritarian. A single individual stands alone on a podium in front of a roomful of great musicians. The baton comes down, and the orchestra explodes into a feast of sound. The musicians seem to do his bidding. What could offer a more powerful metaphor for leadership? The truth of the matter is that the individual with the baton makes no sound at all. Instead, the conductor elicits sounds from others. It is the musicians with the instruments that will actually play the music. The conductor’s task is to inspire, guide and enable them.
This collaborative leadership model is hardly new. The well-known quote from Lao Tzu paraphrased above is over 2,500 years old. The “great leader” in this verse acts in such a way that people hardly notice a guiding presence. When the project is over they may not even realize they were led at all. The key teaching is in the middle line: “If one doesn’t trust the people, they cannot be depended upon to prove themselves.” This is an empowerment approach at the highest level.
To lead collaboratively is to establish trust among the "ensemble" and then to have the discipline to allow it to play.
To lead collaboratively is to establish trust among the “ensemble” and then to have the discipline to allow it to play. This does not refer to traditional management roles: delegation, oversight, and providing feedback, but flows from the leader’s basic faith in humanity. It is based upon respecting for those you lead and offering the expectation that those in your charge can and will act for the benefit of all. This level of leadership bases itself upon the assumption that those working for you have integrity and capacity, and that you intend to allow them the freedom which is necessary to let themselves flower.
Although it is an ancient text, Lao Tzu’s teaching offers a radical idea. So much can go wrong. Wouldn’t it be better to establish a manual of human behavior? Don’t we need a set of guidelines? Rules? What if we end up with chaos? Such questions grow from fear, and they reveal how hard it is to place trust in others while carrying the responsibilities of leadership. Lao Tzu suggests that the worst leaders trade a sense of trust for the security of control. Rather than using freedom and faith as motivators, they create an environment that relies on fear and intimidation to gain compliance. At best the worker is seen as a kind of managed adolescent, while, at worst, lack of trust engenders contempt between the leader and the people.
Collaboration can only exist in a safe environment. It requires a different understanding of control. It isn’t that the great leader is disengaged, but those gestures that draw attention toward the leader are minimized in order to facilitate freedom for others to offer their own contributions. The leader looks at ever-changing dynamics and skillfully works with what arises. The leader sets boundaries for focused work and opens new spaces for playful creativity. The leader facilitates forward motion, removes obstacles, and encourages others to act responsibly toward the common goal.
The leader sets boundaries for focused work and opens new spaces for playful creativity.
Lao Tzu understands just how much interior development is required for this type of leadership.
One’s personal motivation matters deeply here. The leader who does this work in order to gain love from his subjects is not as great as the one who leads in order to disappear into the shared victory. Leading in order to be loved is still derived from the needs of the ego, but the greatest leaders come to a place where their egos no longer need to be fed.
The collective work takes on the look of an ensemble of artists. The distinction between accompanist and soloist disappears into the whole. Whose interpretation was it? The soloist's? The conductor’s? The orchestra’s?
From this perspective, the points of view expressed as I, we, us and them disappear into it.
©2019 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved
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