Leadership from a Great Conductor

August 25, 2018 marked the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, one of the great orchestra conductors and composers of his generation. New York Philharmonic archivist Barbara Haws said in an interview recently that "Sometimes when you watch Bernstein conduct, and he's so involved and he's so into it — you know, it's his own expression. He’s not even trying to communicate something specific to the orchestra. It's his own involvement and enthusiasm at that moment, his own kind of oneness with the work."

I was struck by her observation. One of the great orchestra conductors of his time wasn’t “trying to communicate something specific to the orchestra”? How is it, then, that he was so effective in getting the best from them? And what might this say about effective leadership?

We know from research that much more gets transmitted in interactions between people than just the overt message or the actual content of the communication. “As the workplace becomes increasingly collaborative and virtual, leaders do best if they cultivate genuine connections and rapport,” writes Daniel Goleman, known primarily for his work on emotional intelligence, and author of the book by the same name. This is what many refer to as authentic leadership.

This of course is not to discount technique, or skill, or well-articulated messages of vision and purpose. All of these contribute to effective leadership, but they cannot alone capture hearts and minds. They are not the essence of great leadership.

I think there are some clues to this essence in Haws’ statement about Bernstein. One is her observation that he wasn’t “even trying to communicate something specific.” Artists, athletes, and those who strive to do their best will attest to the counter-productive effects of trying to perform. It adds noise to the process, both for the individual, and also for the audience. And second, her observation that his power and connection came from “his own involvement and enthusiasm at that moment, his own kind of oneness with the work."

This is the kind of connection and rapport that characterizes authentic leadership. The question that is always in the minds of people about a leader is this: Does this person believe what he or she is saying? Is it real? Can I trust it? The answer to that question doesn’t come from the words that are spoken, or even from a flawless delivery. It comes through our natural radar as human beings for authenticity.

For the leader, it is easy to lose sight of the power and influence that comes through his or her “own expression … and enthusiasm in that moment”. Perhaps remembering the great conductor can serve as that reminder. After all, who among us would not want that for ourselves, and for those that lead us?