Maestro: A book review by Bob Morris

Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening
Roger Nierenberg
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (2009)

Roger Nierenberg has written the best book on the essence of leadership that I have read in recent years. He provides the material in the form of a business narrative, a sub genre that not all writers can handle effectively (he does) and the basic situation is quite simple: a senior-level executive is struggling without much success to be an effective leader. He overhears his daughter’s violin teacher, Robert, raving about the new conductor of the local orchestra in which he plays. “He’s got this rare ability of getting headstrong and independent people like us [i.e. members of the orchestra] to set aside our differences and work toward making the music come alive.” Robert invites the executive to attend a rehearsal and observe the conductor at work. It would be inappropriate for me to reveal (or even summarize) what happens after that. Suffice to say that, over time, the executive gains an understanding of what effective leadership is…and isn’t.

Nierenberg is a highly and widely acclaimed conductor who devised an interactive program, The Music Paradigm. Here is how it is described at its Web site: “The Music Paradigm uses a symphony orchestra as a metaphor for any dynamic organization, particularly one dealing with a period of exceptional challenge or change: a merger, a restructuring, new leadership, change initiatives, stretch performance goals, and many more. During a Music Paradigm session, the executives are seated among members of a live, professional orchestra. From the first moments, it is clear that something has changed–that the meeting paradigm has shifted in an important and interesting way. The conductor leads the musicians through a series of carefully crafted exercises that help illustrate key qualities, reactions, and practices of high performing business teams–strategically designed to be in line with the needs and challenges of the executives and their organizations. The session is a high-impact learning experience, a powerful personal and team journey, and exciting instructional entertainment.”

Those who read Nierenberg’s book, Maestro, accompany the corporate executive as he observes not one but several performances (including rehearsals) by the orchestra. Of even greater importance, he has a number of one-on-one meetings with the conductor during which he shares his reactions to what he has experienced. He also takes full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions of the conductor to gain the wisdom he needs that will help him to become a more effective leader and manager in his corporate position.

At this point, I feel obligated to reassure those who read this review that there is nothing gimmicky, cute, hoky, etc. about the way Nierenberg presents his material in the form of a narrative. The conversations that the executive and the conductor share seem natural. The various situations in the executive’s company are briefly portrayed almost as a back-story to his gradual and increasingly more interesting understanding of a conductor’s relationships with the entire orchestra, individual sections, and occasionally, with an individual member.

Both symphony conductors and CEOs must manage as well as lead, once they have mastered certain skills and gained whatever knowledge their responsibilities may require. There is also the matter of wisdom and it can be gained only through personal experience, especially experience that is frustrating and perhaps even painful. Warren Bennis, Robert Thomas, and Bill George (among others) refer to such experiences as a “crucible” from which only some emerge stronger. There seem to be so many correlations of a conductor’s relationships with constituents of a symphony orchestra with a CEO’s relationships with constituents of a corporation.

The book concludes with the conductor’s observation that “the maestro is not the one who teaches you all the facts you need for your diploma, or trains you in your specialty. No,” he said, shaking his head, “that is the professore.” And then he adds, “The maestro is the one who lays the foundation for learning, who teaches the principles and the values: the curiosity abut the world, the confidence that education eventually leads to freedom, the courage to strive for something higher than just satisfying your appetite, the ideals that last throughout your life. That is the maestro.”

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