Leadership lessons from the CIPD Annual Conference orchestra

Shakil Butt is moved and inspired by an unusual musical keynote session in Manchester

The closing keynote session at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference stood out as an anomaly. Was it a fluffy ‘feel good’ finish that would alienate the target audience? Would it play to the crowd at the expense of challenging ideas?

Whatever my misgivings, by the time I left I had received a masterclass in leadership from a master in his own field – Professor Gernot Schulz, conductor and former member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Schulz was manic in his energy yet playful with the audience. There were so many lessons to draw on, as the orchestra – his ‘team’ – played a number of beautiful pieces to demonstrate their talent and artistry. Here are just a few:

Lesson 1: Passion

Schulz led the orchestra playing a piece of music with passion, and then played the same piece while visibly demonstrating his disinterest. The notes were the same, in the same order and the timing impeccable – but second time around, the music reflected the lack of energy of the artists. The passion, or lack, of the conductor was visibly impactful on the whole orchestra and the music that ensued.

Lesson 2: Perception

The arrangement of the conductor – centrally placed, with the orchestra on either side facing each other – means that, throughout the performance, each member is aware not only of the conductor but of each other. Similarly, the conductor has full sight of the orchestra. This enables full transparency and each person, including the conductor, knows and sees what others are doing. It enables multiple instruments to play as one. This was illustrated by physically separating the 10 violinists and dispersing them among the audience so their line of sight was diminished. They were out of sync for a split second but were so attuned that they quickly aligned their timing again, relying only on their listening skills.

Lesson 3: Location, location, location

Schulz invited specific members of the audience to listen to a piece of music from where they were sat, then move to a different spot, before finally coming to join him in the centre on stage. They all reported back similar experiences. They noted that from a distance, the music was not comparable to being in close proximity.

Lesson 4: Leadership can be seductive

Members of the audience were all given the chance to lead the orchestra, supported by Schulz, and clearly they relished the opportunity and the power it gave them over the orchestra, bringing music to abrupt starts and ends, raising and lowering the tempo. Their confidence visibly grew as they became increasingly accustomed to power – only to have it taken back from them as Schulz resumed his lessons in leadership.

Lesson 5: Managing performance

Failing to recognise when a member of the orchestra plays well or plays below expectations sends a message from the conductor to the whole team that poor performance does not matter, said Schulz. This can be demotivating and visibly undermines the role of the leader because the performance, good or bad, is apparent for all to see. The lack of acknowledgement or action is equally visible.

Lesson 6: Messaging

As the conductor on the stage, in full view of the whole orchestra, Schulz has to be conscious of the non-verbal communication he sends out. The point was made that “the tongue can lie but the body cannot”. If you are the leader you are always on stage and always have to be in the role. Just before the start of a particular piece of music, Schulz drew breath and through expressions alone was able to convey the tempo required, a direction immediately picked up by the orchestra. He explained that if a leader gives too many signals while leading, it poses the question: does the conductor not know what I am capable of? Giving too few signals makes the orchestra more attentive and heightens their senses.

Lesson 7: With or without you

My naivety about the role of the conductor was addressed when Schulz asked whether there was a need for his contribution, as clearly the orchestra were all very talented and knew the music being played. The point was made that organisations do not come to a standstill when the leader is offsite – but the leader, when present, shapes what happens.

Lesson 8: Situational leadership

Schulz played a particular piece of music repeatedly but varied the tempo – sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes with great energy, other times with restraint. He made the point that to lead this particular orchestra he would be less directional – giving a clear message that he trusts them.

Lesson 9: Empowering others

Selectively, Schulz encouraged a single musician to play alone, delivering their particular rendition of a piece, then brought in other players to support the first musician without taking full control back. Too often leaders do not take advantage of the talent within their teams and, worse still, get in the way rather than allowing someone the opportunity to show what they can offer.

Lesson 10: Looking for meaning

Finally, Schulz entertained us, leading the audience through a range of emotions as he conducted in various styles – playfully, romantically, aggressively – and asked us to note the difference in style and the accompanying result. The conductor explained that if the leader doesn’t have meaning in his mind and does not communicate this meaning through his words and body language, everyone ends up with a different meaning. If you are demanding high performance, he said, you need to give meaning.

Shakil Butt is the founder of HR consultancy HR Hero 4 Hire, and former HR and OD director of charity IR Worldwide