The orchestra and the benevolent dictator

In 1972, a group of young musicians made history by creating an orchestra without a conductor. Nearly 50 years later, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is still something of a prodigy in the search for viable models of collaborative leadership.

The role of the conductor has changed significantly over the last century since the days of Arturo Toscanini who famously broke batons, berated musicians and even threw a score at his orchestra during rehearsals. But even so, an orchestra is still not the kind of environment typically associated with democratic leadership. This is of course why Orpheus still stands out.

There are rich lessons in collaboration in the way the 34 members of Orpheus work together as a collective and rotate leadership roles. It’s also a case study in how leadership can evolve to adapt to an environment where more inclusion and democracy is called for.

We have lost faith in command and control leadership and all the inequities it has created. This was the the old-style, take-charge, rally-the-troops type of leadership typified by Winston Churchill, Thomas Watson, and Lee Iacocca which has largely fallen out of favour.

Today you will struggle to find many high profile leaders who don’t describe themselves as collaborative in some way.

Now it is necessary to appreciate the wisdom of the crowd rather than continuing to idolise the lone genius. As leadership author Ken Blanchard says “No one is as smart as all of us”.

So Orpheus is a case study in hope  – the hope to find a new way to exchange feedback, refine teamwork, enhance motivation, and encourage creativity whatever the industry.

There are, however, those who believe that the Orpheus process pays a price for its commitment to radical collaboration. The response has often been mixed and reviews can go both ways. The same performance is either described as brilliant or staid. Musicians too are divided in their views.

Many say there’s a sacrifice made when rule-by-committee exists; there is often no consistent point of view through a piece. Rehearsals can take hours, everything is debated and no clear vision of a piece comes across.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of business theory in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford is one commentator who remains unconvinced about the merits of the Orpheus model.

“There are various movements that have tried to ‘democratize’ organizations. They mostly don’t work or don’t last. I am a huge believer in the advantages of the Orpheus approach, but it flies in the face of fundamental human psychology. “ he says.

As one frustrated violist commented: “Large orchestras simply can’t succeed without a benign dictator to take the reins and make decisions — right or wrong, then take credit/blame and responsibility.”

In his article Collaboration Overload in Harvard Business Review, Organisational Psychology Professor Adam Grant and co-authors Rob Cross and Rebe Rebele question whether the collaboration wave has gone too far and suggest that the time has come for a “collaborator-in-chief’ to mediate the chaos of too much consensus.

There is much to praise about collaboration but there are also some traps to avoid. We have all grown weary of too many meetings, emails and the other unproductive interactions associated with collaboration at work. Excessive collaboration saps energy and leaves us with just too little time to do our most important work.

Whether it’s the conductor of an orchestra that needs fresh inspiration,  the leader of an organisation that needs new direction or a country who needs hope in the middle of a pandemic – there is still a place for the benevolent dictator.

As long as leaders focus more on the benevolence part of the equation and less on dictatorship, we will continue to value direction from someone who knows the overall score better than we do and who is able to inspire us to make more beautiful music than we are able to create on our own.

 

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