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’

Teaching Leaders To Dance

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.

Dr Mark Powell designed and ran the four-year programme, giving successive delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds. Mark is himself a championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won the over-35 World Championship for two years running while working as a partner at KPMG. He argues that people’s core behaviours are not easily changed by new information – by ‘being told stuff’ – and that we need a gut experience, a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment of understanding, to be able to internalise something sufficiently to create enduring new behaviour patterns. Working at close quarters with top-flight performing artists has the potential to create such moments of insight. This article describes how delegates to the Oxford progamme worked with world-class competitive Latin ballroom dancers.

The connection

Sessions begin with a short routine by the dancers. Dance that looks wonderful on stage or screen has even greater impact at close quarters; the speed, agility and precision of top dancers takes the breath away. The subsequent series of exercises and demonstrations set out to give delegates some understanding of the key mindsets and approaches that dancers use to create winning performances.

In competitive dance, there is much focus on the quality of ‘the connection’ between two dancers. It comes out of their intense awareness of each other’s behavior in the course of the performance and the subtlety of their interaction.

As an exercise, delegates are asked to pair up and put their hands forward, palms facing outwards. Each delegate puts their hands against the other’s, increasing the weight transferred until it is uncomfortable for the other partner. As they ease off, there comes a point at which each partner can no longer feel the other’s weight; they have lost ‘the connection’ in a physical sense. Moving around in simple ways while trying to maintain the correct weight of connection is difficult, but tends to lead to a number of ‘ah-ha!’ moments from delegates.

Dancers are not in physical contact throughout the whole of any routine; the connection must be maintained visually. Dancers talk about ‘looking and seeing’: keeping constantly and precisely aware of what their partner is experiencing and signalling.

Discussion turns to levels of genuine interaction in the workplace. Delegates experiment with maintaining higher levels of eye contact than usual while chatting to their colleagues. This is usually slightly uncomfortable, prompting further discussion of the typical level of ‘connection’ between colleagues at work.

Using ‘the connection’ for complex improvisation

The dancers perform a short, unrehearsed routine. Dancers with good connection are able to improvise astonishingly complex routines without any prior discussion. They explain to the delegates the convention in ballroom dancing that the man ‘leads’ and so is able to initiate moves that are instantly grasped and executed by their partner, but also stress that the lead is often ‘shared’ and that the woman dancer may initiate a move. This shared leadership between expert partners enables them to improvise high-quality routines that would require hours of rehearsal by less well-connected dancers.

The dancers also show how leadership must be ‘allowed’. The physical connection that was demonstrated in the weight-sharing exercise can become ‘push-pull’. They perform a short routine in which the man ignores his partner’s responses and ‘pushes’ her around the dance floor. The effect is immediately obvious and is ugly to watch; the dance has been ruined aesthetically.

Absolute trust

The key issue of trust is dramatically demonstrated when the dancers perform a few lifts and catches. The dancers explain that the trust is actually absolute, not relative: ‘a high degree of trust’ is not good enough – a moment’s doubt and hesitation can lead, paradoxically, to accidents. Discussion turns to typical levels of trust between colleagues at work and to the advantages that higher levels of trust would bring.

 The art in what we do

Finally, the dancers explore the issue of ‘artistry’ – the aesthetic elements that raise a competitive routine above mere technical excellence. Because competition is so fierce, last year’s winning artistry will not be enough to win this year’s championship: dancers are constantly looking for the new piece of magic that will lift their routine out of the ordinary – even when the ‘ordinary’ is technically astounding. Delegates consider whether there is scope for artistry in their own performances at work.

True ensemble behavior

The common thread that runs through all performances that involve more than one person is ensemble behaviour. Groups of performing artists put on a winning performance together, or they fail. Only by helping you to perform brilliantly can I hope to be part of a winning performance.

The focus on ‘connection’ in these dance sessions helped to engender, at an emotional, gut level, a new awareness of the centrality of partnership and team work, and the fact that this depends on ‘being there for others’: reacting positively and supportively to whatever partners are experiencing and signalling in the attempt to deliver a winning performance together. Issues of ‘shared and allowed’ leadership were also key, as was the consequent ability to improvise brilliantly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

Embracing a ‘dance’ culture

  • Quality of connection is key: great performers react to each other in the moment, subtly and precisely
  • Great connection also enables brilliant improvisation
  • Leadership is shared, allowed and serves the overall performance
  • Trust is absolute and taken for granted; lack of trust is fatal
  • Winning performances are aesthetically wonderful as well as being technically perfect

Read the next article in this series: ‘Turning Businesses Into Ensembles’


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

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

 

 

How Business Can Learn From The Performing Arts: A Case Study

In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr Mark Powell. The oil and gas company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviours and mindsets – to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:

  1. A heightened sensitivity to changing circumstances and the ability to react to these quickly, creatively and positively;
  2. The ability to create highly functional teams on a relatively short timescale with groups of people from different backgrounds and with differing agendas.

The results, the company confirmed at the end of the four-year project, were ‘unexpected and wonderful’.

This article gives a very brief outline of the programme and its outcomes. A short series of later posts will explore individual arts-based sessions: dance, drama, jazz and choral conducting.

It’s not the technical issues that are the problem

Major capital projects in oil and gas exploration are notoriously prone to fail to meet target in terms of either budget or schedule – arguably the inevitable consequence of using complex technologies in often physically hostile, unpredictable environments. But the company’s research showed that projects’ failure to deliver on target was due more to ‘soft’ issues, involving the ability to get the various parties involved in projects – governments, project partners, contractors – to work successfully together as a team, than it was to ‘hard’ issues – the inevitable technical problems. As the most recent client director of the programme, Rachel (not her real name) said in an interview with the authors:

 ‘We can figure out the technical side, we can solve technical issues … you know, more cost and more time will solve most problems! And from that perspective we can fix those things – but it’s not those things that are going wrong, especially on big projects.’

Rachel’s predecessor as head of the development programme, Michael (not his real name) had said something very similar in a previous interview:

‘I could see that a lot of the issues we had with projects were in relation particularly to the way that project managers behaved, both in relationship to their staff and their stakeholders. And I guess the other thing was there was no real consistency of approach, I mean they would all be quite different so there was no real strong culture that this is the way that we do it.’

A key aspect of the change in mindset that Michael wanted his managers to achieve was the ability to be sensitive to different socio-cultural environments and to be able to improvise in the face of rapidly changing circumstances:

‘Their receptiveness to new things […] for a project is important because each time these people are going out to probably different cultures, different countries, different environments. So I think having that ability to respond to what’s coming at them rather than just trying to bulldoze through, and “Well, that’s how I do it, and that’s how I’m going to do it here” [is vital].’

Exploring the techniques and mindsets of performing artists

To address these and other issues, Mark Powell proposed a radical and innovative programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, giving delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds: actors, jazz musicians, dancers, singers, conductors, poets, storytellers and painters. Mark, an associate fellow of the business school, is a strategy consultant who has been a partner at both KPMG and A.T. Kearney, in addition to running several start-up businesses. Mark is also a World Championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won more than 50 titles over the course of a dancing career that began when he was a student of economics at Cambridge University and continued through his career as a management consultant.

As Mark says,

‘I realized that the way of working together that my dance partner and I used to deliver championship-winning performances was different from the kind of relationship that I had with my business partners, or the kinds of relationship that I saw in the companies I was consulting for. I also realized that the way that we worked together as a dance partnership could be broken down and analysed. And the more I worked with other artists – actors, conductors, jazz musicians – the more I realized that we were all using very similar techniques and mindsets and that these could be communicated to other people and used very effectively in the world of business and even in everyday life.’

Changing behaviors with ‘aha!’ moments of gut understanding

Key to Mark’s coaching approach is the belief that offering people new ideas in the form of information – ‘telling people things’ – is very unlikely to change their behavior. But when they experience something at a gut, emotional level, this can bring about a real and permanent change to the way that they see things and the way that they behave.

‘When people work closely with really great performing artists – dancers, singers, conductors, jazz musicians, whatever – they experience something,’ says Mark. ‘It’s very moving, it’s very powerful, so it gets beneath people’s intellectual defences and then, typically, they really ‘get’ something. They really see how two dancers ‘connect’ – how they watch each other intently and pick up tiny bodily cues that allow them to move together, at speed, in an apparently magical way. Or they really ‘get’ how jazz musicians allow leadership to move around the group without any apparent signals, or how a choir and a conductor create a uniquely affecting performance of a piece of music, based only on the choir’s instinctive interpretation of the conductor’s body language. And when that wonderful ‘aha!’ moment happens, it never leaves you. So these people go back to their world with a different view of how you can work creatively with someone; how you can develop this real ‘ensemble’ approach of “We’re going to work together to make this a winning performance, and I have to help you to be brilliant to enable me to be brilliant.”’

The programme had not been easy to ‘sell’ to senior figures in the corporation. As programme director, Michael, told the authors:

‘I guess the sort of standard project management course would have been, you know, do the cost estimating and schedule risk management. And there was an awful lot of pressure from certain parts of the company to do that, that this should be just a skills training programme.’

But as Rachel confirmed:

‘I think there is an intuitive understanding at a lot of senior levels that in order to get extraordinary results you need to do something extraordinary, and getting people outside of their comfort zones and getting people to try something that is extraordinarily unusual for them is where we got the best realizations from those people about their own environment, their own behavior, their own transactions and relations with others.’

Ten behavioural lessons from the performing arts

The ‘take-outs’ from this kind of intense and varied programme of arts-related coaching are highly varied and differ between the forms of performing arts involved and from individual to individual. The main take-outs from the programme can be summarised in the form of 10 questions.

  • What performance are we in and what is our role?
  • Where is our theatre of action?
  • Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?
  • Are we rehearsing creatively?
  • Do we have the right people in the room?
  • Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
  • Where is the art in what we do?
  • Is our leadership shared, allowed and inspirational?
  • Are we helping each other to perform brilliantly?
  • Are we delivering a winning performance?

The programme director, Michael, confirmed that delegates had indeed acquired a greater self-awareness of their own leadership style and behavior:

‘A lot of them work very hard, there’s a lot of energy, and they don’t necessarily ever step back and look at their impact and how they appear to others. Whereas in a lot of these sessions it did make them reflect on it and think well, that’s how I behave and that’s how I come across. So there was quite a lot of that in the sessions, people were forced to just reflect and think and experience in a different way. And it did have an impact on some of them. Particularly the more difficult characters […] Probably the two most disruptive in the whole population did, in the end, turn out to be those two that were most supportive of the whole thing.’

A very real financial “oomph”

A culture of increased ‘open-mindedness’ did develop amongst the project managers who had attended the programme, leading to greatly improved relationships with their complex teams of stakeholders, and several individual initiatives in problem-solving that saved the company considerable amounts of time and money.

To give Rachel the last word on the arts-based programme’s effect on delegates:

‘It was completely unexpected and far greater than we had anticipated […] A lot of the perception before that was that the benefits [would be] more intangible; that the benefits were more soft and fuzzy and fluffy […] and what we found when we actually got this back is that’s not actually the case at all and that the results that were coming back were much more concrete and much more distinct than we expected – there was a very real financial oomph.

Read more about what business can learn from the arts in a series of four additional posts, beginning with Developing a Performance Culture.


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.

A full account of the dance-related Dr Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.