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What Leaders of Professionals Do

The real leader has no need to lead – he is content to point the way.
— (Henry Miller)

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.
— (Max DePree)

Although Henry Miller’s words are an oversimplification, there is more than a grain of truth in what he says, particularly as far as leaders of professionals are concerned. Leadership is an enabling and facilitating rather than a directing and controlling role. A gentle blend of nudging people in the right direction, ideally agreed beforehand with those involved, and the provision of help and support when needed generally works well. Peter Drucker, the eminent thinker on business, leadership and management, notes that ‘knowledge-based organisations’ are ‘composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through organised feedback from colleagues and customers’ (1989). The watchwords, therefore, are leading with a light touch.

Leaders of professional service teams have sometimes been likened to conductors of orchestras whose job is both to coach musicians and to inspire them to excel. But there are weaknesses in this analogy because many conductors, it seems, over-manage. Conductors often directly supervise the activities of a large number of musicians, right down to small details. Power and authority are considerable and are frequently displayed. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, who sees himself as much more a coach than a maestro, was once asked if the conductor of the orchestra is a good model for leadership in the business world. His response was damning: ‘It’s the worst! The conductor is the last bastion of totalitarianism in the world – the person whose authority never gets questioned. There’s a saying: every dictator aspires to be a conductor.’ Benjamin Zander tells a story about the maestro Toscanini (Zander and Zander, 2000):

It is said that once in the middle of a rehearsal, in a fit of anger, he fired a longstanding member of the double bass section, who now had to return home to tell his wife that he was out of a job. As the bass player packed up his instrument, he mentioned a few things that he had hitherto kept to himself and, as he left the hall for the final time, shouted at Toscanini ‘You are a no-good son of a bitch’. So oblivious was Toscanini to the notion that a player would dare to challenge his authority that he waved back ‘It is too late to apologise!’

Benjamin Zander has reinterpreted the conductor’s role. He sees his job primarily as one of enabling the musicians to bring the best out of themselves. He believes one of his main functions is to coach musicians to be expressive performers of great music. He says (Zander and Zander, 2000):

One way I know if I am performing well is to look into my musicians’ eyes. The eyes never lie. If the eyes are shining, then I know that my leadership is working. Human beings in the presence of possibility react physically as well as emotionally. If the eyes aren’t shining, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing that’s keeping my musicians’ eyes from shining?’

It looks as though Benjamin Zander’s style is a rather better model for leading professional teams than the example of the more conventional conductor of the orchestra.