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The Smack Of Firm Leadership (or not)

OK.  I’ll ask you to bear with me a bit on this one, as I’m starting well out in left field.  (Or, to really milk the analogy, somewhere behind the first violins.)

One of the things I like about The Economist -- both print and online -- is that it manages to provide deep, generally thoughtful coverage on business, finance, and political issues while acknowledging that there are other meaningful things in the world.  Its science section is generally informative and thought-provoking, and it provides the basis for this little note.

This week’s issue includes a piece (Conducting) summarizing a study conducted by Alessandro D’Ausilio of the Italian Institute of Technology, and recently published, which attempts to determine whether orchestral conductors really do anything useful.  I found it interesting for a few reasons: first, because (as I’ve mentioned before), I’m a recovering musician and still a fan; second, because it’s a question many musicians and non-musicians have raised over the years; and finally, because I believe it suggests some lessons which apply in Front Of House and Back Of House management settings, as well as any other setting where teams operate under direct or indirect supervision.

I won’t recount the study itself.  If you’re interested, the link above gives a thorough description of the methods and technologies employed to reach its conclusion.  What I will observe is that the study concluded that strong-willed leaders (in this setting) brought forth a superior performance from their teams, or staff, but only so long as they were able to impose their will on said staff.  The contra-assertion was also true in this study: strong-willed leaders who were, for whatever reason, NOT able to impose their wills were deemed to bring forth a less satisfactory performance from their staff.  So far, I agree, and I think we’ve all seen examples of both, whether in restaurants, military units, sports teams, or a multitude of other settings: the strong-willed leader who is able to convince his/her team to subvert their individual personalities or preferences for the good of the team usually brings forth the best performance.

The really interesting part of the study, for me, was the other finding, which was somewhat buried, but which is, I think, more applicable to most of our situations.  The study also included a conductor (read: leader) not generally perceived as domineering, or strong-willed.  That leader was given the same team to work with -- skilled musicians in this case, but any trained team will suffice for my inference.  Mr. D’Ausilio and his researchers noted that the team’s performance gelled because they fed off each other’s input, particularly in the absence of strong leadership, and sometimes despite it!  In all instances EXCEPT where the leader fully imposed his/her will on the team, the evaluators determined that the self-directed team (my words, but it seems a fair description for the results which Mr. D’Ausilio observed) provided a more satisfactory performance than those of a team in conflict with its leader.

A glib conclusion might be that von Karajan, or General Patton, or Bear Bryant, will get the best results, but that only a few von Karajans or Pattons and Bryants exist, and the rest of us should make certain that our team members are able to not only think for themselves, but to respond to guidance from each other, in order to perform well under pressure.  I’m sure all of us who are team leaders believe we have the strength and vision of von Karajan, Patton, and Bryant, but I’m equally sure most of us don’t, because there are so few really topnotch leaders, so we’d best make sure we look good by assembling superior teams which are able to guide themselves -- and then get out of the way, or at worst wave a baton from time to time so the world still sees us as leaders!

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