Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1491:   ORPHEUS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1491.

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 created them.

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 leaderlessness works.

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 trust.

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 purpose becomes 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 work.

(Theme music)


Loenhardt, D., Soothing Savage Structures: A Leaderless Orchestra Offers Lessons for Business. The New York Times: Business Day, Wednesday, November 10, 1999, pp. C1, C14.

The Orpheus home page is: http://www.orpheusnyc.com/

For more on this view of cooperation, Click Here.



(photo by John Lienhard)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra -- before the conductor joins them



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.