In 1988, Dr. Peter Drucker wrote an influential article, "The Coming of the New Organization," in which he argued that companies would in the future become flatter organizationally to capture the potential of knowledge workers. One model, he opined, was the symphony orchestra where the conductor adds vision, but must evoke the best performance from her or his independent players.
Leadership Ensemble looks beyond Dr. Drucker's vision, to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's practices in operating without a conductor! The result is a "dynamic equilibrium" where everyone takes turns playing leadership roles and is encouraged to provide the kinds of ideas that only conductors normally propose. Interestingly, the Orpheus group is inspired to make great music . . . along the lines of what the collaboration of chamber groups has always done. If they thought that having a conductor would help, they would get a conductor. Instead, they seem to have harnessed many dimensions of the talents of all 27 musicians in the group. Their intent is to evolve further in this direction, so the book represents the group at a point in time, rather than at a destination.
The usual orchestra is run like a dukedom, with the conductor in charge. Few opinions are asked for and even fewer are brooked. In fact, independent surveys show that musicians in orchestras generally have very poor job satisfaction. The authors joke that "every dictator aspires to be a conductor" because a conductor's power is so absolute.
The best part of this book involves describing the way the orchestra operates to select a repertoire, decide how to perform a piece, determine who will play what parts, and handle differences of opinion. There are many other interesting sections about how the musicians have expanded their roles to get into more areas of management and recently (1998) were added to the board of trustees. The processes involved reminded me a lot of what jazz musicians do more informally, and improvisational actors do on the spur of the moment. The remarkable thing is that great planning is captured by the orchestra, without getting bogged down in spending too much time preparing. Their processes are very complex and effective, and depend on thoughtful and timely action by everyone involved. I would love to see a DVD version of this book that involved showing them at work in preparing pieces and handling other important tasks.
The key principles of their success are boiled down into 8 principles. These concepts are elaborated with a few examples from other organizations (mostly profit-making companies), five steps for implementation, and problems to look out for in implementation. Although this material is good, I would have preferred to have read more about Orpheus itself instead.
A key caution that I have about the advice here is that the organizations using these principles were either founded upon them, or have been using them extensively for a long time. I'm not sure that the transition from a more hierarchical organization will go rapidly and smoothly. If the purpose was to advise companies and nonprofits on how to make these changes, the authors would have done better to focus on organizations that were recently hierarchical and rapidly changed to something close to what Orpheus does.
If you are like me, you will be tempted to dismiss the example because it involves highly talented and motivated musicians who earn a good living. But the authors have brought into the book enough examples of nonprofessionals responding just as well that I was persuaded that this model probably can be taken much further than most companies are trying to do. Will CEOs be comfortable in this new role of encouraging the culture, and staying out of the way? I hope so!
Where can you let go and do less as a leader and allow others to lead more? Where do you need to do more as a leader for your organization to accomplish more?