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Is Leading Self-Organisation like Conducting an Orchestra?

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Traditional management models don't tell leaders how to support their Agile teams without undermining their emerging self-organisation. Allusions to musical performance and "conducting the orchestra" abound - but not everyone agrees this is apt. Is the "conductor" model a good practice or an anti-pattern? In his TED talk, former conductor Itay Talgam shows us video of several types of conductors, and talks about what their style does to the "teams" they lead. And perhaps we also need to take into account the styles of the teams themselves.

In this 20-minute talk, entitled "Lead like the Great Conductors," Talgam says from experience that the ability to stand up and bring order out of chaos feels fantastic, and that it's a great temptation for the conductor to think "it's all about me." In fact, the small gestures of that one person are quite insufficient to bring about the magnificent music of the orchestra. it is the product of everyone contributing their stories, their skills. Different conductors engage these skills in different ways, and may in fact help or hinder this process.

Talgam showed films of, and then discussed, the styles of five famous conductors. They are outlined here, but it's really worth watching the body language in the films he shows. It's amazing how much one can influence a group without words!

  • Riccardo Muti - who, it is said, felt personally responsible to the composer to deliver to perfection his own (Muti's) interpretation of the music. Muti's controlling physical style apparently mirrored the control he exerted over the orchestra's interpretations.(After many years tenure, Muti was petitioned to resign by the entire orchestra and staff of La Scala).
  • Richard Strauss - who some consider "wrote the book" for conductors, was a much calmer conductor. He apparently insisted that a conductor who's sweaty at the end of a performance "did something wrong." He did, however, exert another form of control on the orchestra, insisting on strict adherence to the score. His orchestras worked "by the book'.
  • Herbert von Karajan, on the other hand, often conducted with his eyes closed, and as though the orchestra should read his mind, with vague emotional gestures that offered no clear guidance, according to Talgam. His orchestras must find their own way through the music, and if they did their job well, it would match with what he believed was the right way. Asked by one player: "When should I start?" he answered: "When you can't stand it any more".
  • Carlos Kleiber - an energetic conductor, who partnered with his players and audience by setting up the conditions for the music to happen and allowing them to co-create with him. The process was apparently tiring but very rewarding for the musicians.
  • Leonard Berstein - who at times put his baton away and simply stood enjoying the music. He, too, produced orchestral music through a process that intimately involved the members of his team, and like a good coach, when his job was well done, they worked beautifully without him, creating something unique. "Any great work of art revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world -- the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air."

Depending on which model one references, it's easy to understand why some espouse the idea of Agile leadership as "conducting', while others insist that the the orchestral conductor model has no place within a self-organising team model.

The fact is that not all teams are alike, and perhaps they should not be led in the same way. The Hershey-Blanchard "Situational Leadership" model was referenced several times at the recent ScrumGathering in Munich. Joseph Railin, in Creating Leaderful Organizations calls it a "Followership Model" because it suggests that the key to helping team members growing into leadership lies in matching one's leadership style to the team's level of readiness to follow.

Hershey and Blanchard identified four different states of "readiness to follow". Note that "able" indicates ability to do work tasks both intellectually (training) and emotionally (personal maturity).


Ideally teams progress through these to reach "Able, Willing". What we've learned from the Tuckman "-orming model" suggests that events or situations can cause teams to thrash back through previous states (for example: new team members or economic instability).  It's also worth noting that, by some definitions, until a group is at least "willing" it cannot really be considered a team.

For each of the four follower orientations, Hershey and Blanchard identify a different style of leadership as useful. This means that what worked wonders for one team may not be helpful to the next, or not for every member. It appears that an Agile leader may need a toolkit of different approaches.



In this model, the axes represent attitudes of the leader: "Relationship Oriented" refers to the emphasis required on the relationship between leader and followers, and "Task Oriented" refers to the effort that the leader needs to put into readying followers to do the actual tasks.

Other names have also been used for these leadership styles:

Telling Directing
Selling Coaching
Participating Joining, Supporting
Delegating Trusting

A clear, brief discussion of what the "readiness" states look like and how each style can be applied and misapplied is available on the website of  the Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality. The model, dating from 1972, is also referenced in numerous management and leadership books.

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