Today, we have no leader. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I once knew a violist who
took over a youth orchestra. One day at lunch, I
asked him what it was like being a conductor.
"Oh, John, it's wonderful," he said.
"You lower your arm on the downbeat and a glorious sound comes at you."
Then he grinned and said, "Pretty soon you begin to believe that you are making that sound."
But not all music is conducted. String quartets
don't have conductors, nor do good jazz ensembles.
A few chamber orchestras are conductorless. One of
the best is the 19-member orchestra Orpheus.
The Baruch College business school recently
recognized the significance of such a group and
invited them in. Nineteen people is larger than the
leaderless groups we deal with daily -- families,
small office groups, and the like. So these
business people study Orpheus to learn how
The New York Times describes the scene: The
orchestra rehearses in the pit while students
encircle it -- some on the stage, others in
front-row seats, all trying to understand it. They
watch as nineteen players suddenly begin Telemann's
Water Music. No downbeat, no evident signal!
It's spooky. How do they do it?
The concertmistress demonstrates a small movement
of her shoulders, telegraphing her downstroke. The
whole trick is for the players to be highly aware
of one another, not only in starting, but all
through the performance. A performance is a
conversation carried out in body language.
Rehearsals are another matter. Arguments break out
and most are resolved by consensus. Some have to be
sorted out by vote. It is anarchy at its finest.
Today's businesses are catching on as they try to
strip away hierarchical layers in their
organizations. That means increased dependence on
everyone's sharing common objectives, whether to
create a fine product or a fine sound. On the face
of it, it seems obvious. Of course we create better
products if we all share the objective of doing so.
But it takes courage to let the objective, rather
than a person, do the leading. It takes
Pyramidal organization, with one person calling the
shots, has a childlike appeal. The old formula,
seven layers of management, each passing orders on
to seven people, is like an array of toy soldiers.
Obeying orders without holding the common
destructive because we cannot err and correct when we're
obedient. In musical performances, errors and
corrections take place on a small scale, but
they're constantly present. Conductor or no, you
don't just watch the concertmistress dip her
shoulder to begin. You watch one another
throughout. You keep reacting, and you keep
correcting, until you end the final chord, as one.
So a few companies will take their cue from a fine
orchestra. Even then, many will revert back to the
comfortable old myths of leadership. But this
Orpheus is no myth. Like these players,
others will learn to be led by the music itself.
And, for those few, it will be a wonderful thing.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds