Observations of a World-Class Team Leader

Recently I went to a musical performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  My seat was in the choir seats behind the orchestra and I was right in the middle so I was directly opposite the conductor and therefore able to see exactly what he was doing in leading the team that is his orchestra.  Dudamel is lauded as an inspirational conductor, though there are some who prefer their conductors grey and more mannered.  I hugely enjoyed the concert, and I hugely enjoyed watching closely as Dudamel did his thing.  It really was a masterclass in team leadership.

When I watch a concert from behind the conductor (as is usual) or on TV, it sometimes feels as though the conductor can’t possibly be leading the orchestra – or not that much anyway, perhaps just giving the beat and key stop and start signals – to some extent it feels as though they are dancing along to the music rather than shaping it.  Watching as closely as I was able to this week, there was a tiny but perceptible gap between an instruction from the conductor and the relevant thing happening – I became more aware than ever before of the rich extent to which conductors (or, this one at least) has a profound and direct effect on the orchestra, on the split second behaviour of 100 skilled and attentive people.

It is a bit of cliche in the management literature to study orchestras as teams, usually in contrast to the style of say a jazz combo.  But I am going to add some observations of this specific conductor, on this particular day, that felt interesting – some of them may have wider relevance, in certain circumstances.  Some of the leadership points are very obvious!

Expressive, modulated, leadership using every tool available.  Dudamel used the whole of his body and an extraordinary array of facial expressions to communicate.  He missed no opportunity to convey his intention.  At times his movement was huge, his facial expression massively contorted, but at no point did it feel over the top, partly because the extent was always directly linked to the need.  For one really quiet passage he – quite literally – conducted the beat with the smallest movement he could do – he conducted the orchestra with his eyebrows

Conducting as though nobody is watching(!).  As a result of this massive expressiveness there were times when he looked really very stupid and undignified indeed!  A freeze frame shot could have been entered into a caption competition.  At one moment his bottom half was doing something like a “Frank Spencer ‘Ooh Betty'” while his top half was going three different ways at once and his eyes were popping out.  And of course nobody did laugh because the results he was producing were extraordinarily good.  A great leader, he only gained credibility from taking a personal presentational risk.

Knowing when not to lead.  There is a short, lovely and important oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Uniquely during the performance, for this section, Dudamel did nothing.  He stood, smiling respectfully, poised and waiting for the oboeist to finish before bringing everyone else in.

Stopping, waiting, and starting.  In between movements at a concert there is silence.  On this day I was able to detect three distinct silences, one after the other.  There was the silence that is necessary for a couple of beats once a piece has ended, there was the restful silence that was between pieces, and there was the preparatory silence just before things got going again.  These stages were signalled by Dudamel’s body language, and holding the baton straight up against his chest during the middle silence.  This made me wonder whether we do enough to allow that pause for reflection once something has finished, a moment of rest, and then a reflective pause before starting again.  In a concert the total length of the silences is about ten seconds, and I don’t think it need take much longer than that in a work context.  I think some meetings would be greatly enhanced by these three pauses between agenda items!

Individual attention in a crowd.  There were probably about 100 people in the orchestra, yet there were times when Dudamel gave very specific individual attention to one of the players.  Never for more than a few seconds at a time, he gave undiluted attention at particular key points.  His arms kept things going for the rest of the orchestra but his face – and you felt, his attention – were utterly focused on making eye contact with one person.  He would smile, or widen his eyes, or do something, which conveyed a sense to the player concerned – you could read it “now then, like that time at rehearsal that I was happy with” – a quick smile of thanks when the performance was delivered and then on to the next.  Do we give 100% focus to individuals when they need it, even fleetingly, or do we get distracted by the wider task?

Credit.  Dudamel was very generous with credit to the players.  He did the usual conductorly thing of inviting soloists or groups of players to stand and take an individual bow and receive specific audience applause.  But more than others he went to them where they were sitting and he BEAMED at them, shook their hand or patted them on the back.  Apart from the initial applause when the conductor turns round to take a bow, whenever he came back to take more applause he invariably did so from within the body of the orchestra, with his arms around some of the players.

In some of the social media traffic around this concert a friend mused about how Dudamel gets such extraordinary performances.  This is how.

(The specific concert I listened to is/was broadcast on Wednesday 14th January 2015 at 9pm.)

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