Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Symphony and Leadership

Learning Leadership Through Music

What can a symphony orchestra teach us about leadership? Plenty, as I learned this week at the NPSF 12th Annual Congress in Orlando Florida. Over 700 attendees sat in the magnificent ballroom amongst many of the instruments to take part in this plenary session ready to kick off this meeting full of patient safety leaders.

As Conductor Roger Nierenberg led the orchestra, The Music Paradigm, through some magical sounds the audience of medical professionals, hospital administrators, patients and families sat amongst many of the players as the symphony shot music through our very soul. There to learn about patient’s safety, as a recent (just 2 days) graduate of the American Hospital Association, National Patient Safety Foundation Patient Safety Leadership Fellowship, I wondered if we were going to learn more, or just be part of this magnificent sound.

Abruptly, the music stopped. As the conductor, wearing a tuxedo with a white bow tie asked us all to choose a member of his orchestra to watch. Watch how they move, see where their eyes go and just pay attention to one. The music started again and I watched one of the violinists.

As the conductor called on audience members, they shared comments like the intensity of some members of the orchestra. As the 90 minutes like this went on, I saw how this was a powerful lesson in leadership, motivation, encouragement, observation and planning.

“Notice the skill of their hands, their movement” he told us. “but still it is one voice”. Teamwork and coordination is what makes this sound as spectacular as it was. As he encouraged members of his orchestra to play their own way, we were listening for how it sounded when each of them got caught up in his or her own “expertise” instead of participating as part of the team.

The conductor asked one musician on the trumpet to play a piece of music. The sound was only one note. “imagine studying music for thirty years” he said “and that’s what you have to do?” The audience laughed, a nervous moment as we all recognized ourselves as often feeling underutilized but still we must keep the spirit. No one here can separate from the team.

He brought some audience members on to the stage so they could hear the sound differently. They could see the whole orchestra as they were scattered throughout the audience. Another time he brought a physician up and held her hand while she conducted. Allowing him to gracefully move her arm, she explained later that she was there only to support. The best leaders are often there only be a supporting role.

Leaders are dedicated. There are many dedicated people who can stand out and lead. Then there are those who are part of the team who will do as little as possible without getting caught. He asked one of each of the instruments to play their best. The rest he suggested would get sloppy. Be lazy but look like you are working hard, he told them. As the cameras scanned the orchestra I could see some were not working as hard. The music still sounded fabulous. He knew the music sounded good. He explained that the goof offs get hidden in the crowd. “dysfunction hides while the best carry it for the others”. It just makes the hard workers work harder.

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