Embodied Leadership: Conducting Business

Jazz Leadership

This post is the last in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. Previous posts have looked at the way in which delegates to the programme worked with dancers, actors and jazz musicians.

Read the previous article: ‘Jazz Leadership’

This final post explores the most ‘hands-on’– and for many delegates the most emotional – element of the programme: the experience of conducting a small chamber choir.

The conducting sessions at Oxford were facilitated by Peter Hanke, a pioneer in this field. Peter is an established choral and orchestral conductor and an associate of the Centre for Art and Leadership at Copenhagen Business School. Peter recounts how, many years ago, he was asked to join a group of business people and give them the opportunity to conduct a small choir. Peter, who gives masterclasses in conducting to professional musicians, was struck by the fact that some of these business leaders, with little or no musical background, were nevertheless able to conduct the musicians quite successfully – sometimes more successfully, to Peter’s surprise, than some trained musicians.

Non-verbal leadership

Peter argues that this is because conducting is not a metaphor for leadership, it is leadership – with the significant difference that it is entirely non-verbal leadership: in performance, the conductor can communicate only through body language and gesture. Successful business leaders have grasped some of the essentials of this vital aspect of communication (quite possibly unconsciously) and are able to use their skills to good musical effect.

A conductor should guide rather than command. Riccardo Muti

In the Oxford programme, delegates went through simple warm-up exercises – some basic ‘loosening up’ of arm movements and gesture – and then took turns in conducting the small professional choral group.

The mood is relaxed and non-judgmental; the facilitator reminds everyone that they are among friends and that the aim is to explore and experience, not to compete. The choir has been briefed to respond precisely to what the delegates do. If the conductor sets a laboured pace, the choir will doggedly stick with this until the facilitator rescues everyone. If the conductor is agitated, the choir will be agitated; as the conductor relaxes, the music calms. Intriguingly, it quickly becomes obvious that far more subtle things are also being conveyed: nervousness, excitement, ebullience, reticence and delight all produce their quite distinctive timbres. If the conductor is too controlling, the music sounds forced; if they get over-excited, the music falls apart and the choir grind to a halt, with much good-natured laughter.

Making music together

As the exercise progresses, the facilitator gives practical advice, all of which is remarkably effective in improving the conductors’ performance. Delegates might be advised to lean backwards, for example, to convey expansiveness, rather than leaning forwards, which suggests scrutiny. Delegates are often advised to limit their arm movements – more contained gestures are more effective than dramatic arm-waving. Where the arms are held in relation to the body has a surprisingly distinct effect on the sound the choir produces.

The sessions typically provoke a great deal of emotion. It is a rare privilege to be an active part of making beautiful music and the sound the choir produces, even in the hands of untrained conductors, is breath-taking, especially at such close quarters – delegates who are not conducting sit in amongst the choir.

The sessions provide rich material for subsequent reflection about leadership. Because space is limited, we have set out below some of the typical key discussion issues, in bullet point form.

  • Complex information is being transmitted from the conductor to the musicians, wordlessly. We tend to call this ‘emotional’ information, but the exercises demonstrate just how much information can be conveyed – both how subtle this can be, and how it shapes the whole performance.
  • The choir have skills that the leader lacks, yet the conductor is able to lead them successfully; the leader produces results through the skills and efforts of others.
  • The relationship is not one of control – the choir must be inspired, and it is impossible to command someone to be inspired.
  • The choir is capable of keeping time and performing the piece well without a conductor, it is what the conductor/leader brings to the music that is of interest.
  • The choir looks to the conductor/leader for direction; it wants to understand what the conductor wants, but it doesn’t want or need to be told what to do.
  • The music produced by the choir sounds different depending on the actions of the conductor because the choir are physically affected by what they see: their diaphragms, lungs, throats and vocal chords behave differently. When the singers like the effect that a conductor is producing, they tend to point to parts of their chests or throats: ‘That feels good here,’ they say. It is a remarkable demonstration of the real effects of what we call ‘embodied leadership’.
  • The success of the performance is judged by the beauty of the end result; good leadership produces more beautiful results.

Creating ‘beautiful’ performances and cultures

Seeing leaders as ‘people who conduct business’ is a highly useful tool for exploring business culture. Leaders and their organisations do perform together, but this performance is typically analysed only in terms of the usual metrics. We tend to forget the extent to which the relationship between leaders and their organizations is embodied – that any number of words are likely to be less effective than the perceived behaviour of leaders – and that there really is beauty in business performance, just as there is such a thing as a healthy (or ‘beautiful’) business culture.

The authors of these articles argue that there is much to be gained by thinking of business as a performance, undertaken by genuine ensembles focussed on the effectiveness of the performance as a whole, where leadership is embodied, shared and allowed and where the outcome is best judged by how beautiful, or ‘affective’, the performance is. Businesses have audiences – ‘consumers’ – and if we deliver great performances, they will come back for more.

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’.

This article first appeared on CultureUniversity.com under the title ‘Conducting Business: Embodied Leadership and ‘Beautiful’ Cultures’

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