Roger Nierenberg: An interview by Bob Morris

NierenbergRoger Nierenberg is the creator of The Music Paradigm. He has led presentations with more than eighty different orchestras throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. His recent book, Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening, gives readers an inside look at how to gain crucial insights about leadership from the work of great conductors. For 14 years, he directed the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in Florida, where he established a special reputation for his highly successful collaborations with many of today’s outstanding soloists and composers. For 24 years he was Music Director of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut. Nierenberg has served as guest conductor for many of America’s most distinguished orchestras and opera companies, has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious music festivals, and has recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Sony Classical Records.

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Morris: Before discussing your book Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening, here are a few general questions. What led you to pursue a career as a symphony conductor?

Nierenberg: Pursuing a career as a conductor is not a choice. I was one of those people who had fallen so deeply in love with orchestral music that I couldn’t live without it. I needed to be as intimate with those sounds as humanly possible, and to engage with every detail of every part.  So for me conducting was the only way.

Morris: How does one prepare for such a career?

Nierenberg: Any conductor is expected to have a formidable training as a musician. Since we are privileged to have the responsibility for interpreting great works of music we should know about musical composition, music theory, have a great ear, know the capabilities and idiosyncrasies of all the instruments and voices, be intimately familiar with a vast body of literature, know many foreign languages, and have something very worthwhile to say. Otherwise why should people follow us?

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you conducted a symphony for the first time?

Nierenberg: I wish that I could have understood how important it is to trust the orchestra, and to understand its capabilities. But that only comes with lots of experience.

Morris: Please explain what The Music Paradigm program is and does.

Nierenberg: The Music Paradigm provides very powerful experiential learning for organizations. Participants are seated within a live professional orchestra, where they can witness at close range the inner workings of a first-class musical ensemble. The orchestra is spontaneously asked to role-play various behaviors, positive and negative, that illuminate the sponsoring organization’s most critical issues. Questions about strategy, leadership, collaboration, alignment and communication snap into focus with vivid and unforgettable clarity. Every two-hour session is custom-made to concentrate on whatever the sponsoring organization wishes to address.

Morris: You have worked with hundreds of different organizations to help them develop effective leaders at all levels and in all areas. No matter how different those organizations may be in most other respects, what do they all share in common in terms of the leadership challenges they face?

Nierenberg: Organizations today need to be able respond to rapid change in a coordinated and strategic way. That is more difficult that it sounds, especially for large organizations where the majority of the workers can’t see the big picture point of view. It is incumbent on leaders to infuse the work with meaning by showing how each piece of the puzzle is related to every other, and how the whole is informed by a coherent logic.

Morris: Based on your own experience and what you have observed, what seem to be the most effective strategies to help overcome those challenges?

Nierenberg: Leaders need to invest in developing a crystal clear vision of their goals, and an achievable strategy for attaining them. (Even when changes in the environment redefine the objectives it is still useful to have had such a vision and strategy.) Then they must convey this picture to the entire organization in a way that inspires people to make that vision their own, and liberates their energy to contribute in ways that only they could invent.

Morris: Now please focus on your book, Maestro. Here are two separate but related questions. First, why did you select the business narrative format to present the material in it?

Nierenberg: I struggled for quite some time to find a way to convey the ideas that had made such a tremendous impact during Music Paradigm sessions. Finally I realized that the book had to be about more than ideas. It had to be an experience. After years of interviewing clients who had greatly benefitted from their Music Paradigm experience I decided to roll them all into one character, and he became the protagonist of the story. The narrative follows his transformation from his old-style, hands-on management style to a more enlightened approach that befits the seasoned professions that he appointed to lead.

Morris: What specifically does “leading by listening” mean?

Nierenberg: Leading by listening is actually quite a rich idea. Of course there is the obvious meaning of leveraging the knowledge and wisdom of the people around you by really giving them your full and open attention. But it involves far more than that. A conductor becomes quite expert in doing what I described above: developing a compelling vision of success for the music. When the orchestra plays he takes in their sound while simultaneously comparing it to the vision he imagined. Thus he discovers the gap between the two. This helps him to invent the best strategy for closing or even eliminating that gap. This kind of leadership-listening is very active and probing. Then there is the epiphany that the leader is responsible for the way his people listen to each other, and that the more transparently they communicate the greater his ability to influence and direct them. There are many levels to this concept.

Morris: Presumably you have received or obtained substantial feedback from executives after they have participated in The Music Paradigm program. What do they say are the two or three insights or lessons that have proven to be of greatest value to them?

Nierenberg: People are very impressed by how light the baton actually is, and how its most subtle movements can effect such obvious changes in the orchestra’s playing. They take away the idea that effective leadership doesn’t have to be high volume or high voltage. (This kind of fine-tuned control is possible when people listen very well to each other.)

Then many people are amazed by the experience of standing on the podium and observing the orchestra from there. They immediately grasp how differently the organization seems from the leader’s point of view. They also begin to understand how easily a leader and a worker can misunderstand each other because their point of view is so different. Finally they comprehend the responsibility a leader has to translate across that chasm by imagining the reality from each chair before he starts to give directions.

Many people remark about the moment when I model dysfunctional leadership in the way I conduct. When I try to control every detail about the performance the musicians confess to feeling undervalued, not trusted, smothered and frustrated. What emerges from the ensuing discussion is the concept that micromanagement is not too much leadership, but rather too little. It focuses exclusively on the operational side and totally neglects conveying the vision and the strategy. This gives useful insights about how to liberate workers to use their talents and skills in service of the organization’s objectives.

Morris: As I read Maestro, I realized that although it was written primarily for those who supervise others or who aspire to do so, the book could be of substantial benefit to those who are supervised, to those who also need to look at leadership “from the podium,” so to speak. Is that a fair assessment?

Nierenberg: Yes, you don’t need authority to exercise leadership. I heard a nice story about that. It was one of those airport nightmare scenarios: endless wait to board the plane, hours sitting on the tarmac, then back to the gate for more waiting. Everyone was frustrated and angry. One man took advantage of the extra time to go and buy 48 long stems roses from a nearby airport florist.  He then went around the gate, telling people that it was his anniversary and that his wife was also frustrated, waiting at the destination. Would they please, he asked, present her with a flower when they finally arrived. Little by little the mood at the gate began to change, as people started to reminisce and tell their favorite anniversary stories. When it was finally time to board many people had almost forgotten about the flight. And when they arrived, each of the 47 people with the roses found the wife, presented the flower with a happy anniversary greeting, and then stood and waited until the husband finally came off to present the 48th rose, to the applause of the crowd clustered around his wife. That’s leadership! And it doesn’t require authority.

Morris: 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.” Here’s my question. For business executives, who are their “professores.”

Nierenberg: There is a lot of attention in business on operations, and for good reason. Without first class operations a business can’t get by. But a tightly run ship, while important, is not sufficient to compete in today’s world of rapid change, complexity and specialization. There is too much danger of people falling into a “do what you’re told” mentality that erodes their energy and robs the organization of perhaps the best contributions their workers could offer. I would say that, in this context, those whose focus on operation and execution eclipses a large-scale appreciation of mission, vision and strategy are “the professores.”

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Nierenberg: I can’t think of one. You’ve done an excellent job.

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