What a Chamber Orchestra Can Teach Us About Leadership and Career Satisfaction


In the world of classical music, orchestra musicians are notoriously unhappy – with a job satisfaction lower than that of a prison guard.  While at the same time, the people at the top of the job satisfaction ladder are chamber orchestra musicians.

It is this dichotomy that has important lessons for everyone on how to lead and learn in business and in life, according to Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.  For him, the difference in outlook between the two comes down to leadership.

In the large orchestra, the management is top down.  It is for the most part a very autocratic arrangement, with the conductor having all of the power.  In the chamber orchestra, however, each player is pretty much autonomous, and the players cooperate to perform.

Taking his cue from the chamber orchestra, Zander sees his job as a conductor to help the musicians he is conducting achieve their best performance.  They need to look at possibilities, not limitations.  The same is true for businesses, which are taking note of Zander’s approach.

To look at things in terms of possibilities, we must realize that all of our actions are the result of a choice.  We can do things as we have always done them, or we can make the choice to question the assumptions we have always had.  Zander uses a piece of music as an example.  We can play the music as it has always been played, or, by questioning our assumptions about it, and reinterpreting it, we can change it into something altogether new.

As part of his leadership style, Zander now focuses on what he can offer to society, not just what he can accomplish for himself.  Looking at things this way takes the image of success and failure out of the picture.

When it comes to managing and solving problems, we all have choices, Zander says.  We can take on a problem with a range of different attitudes – fear, anger, boredom.  But we also can see the possibility inherent in each situation.  And looking at the possibilities in each problem will lead us to take a hard look at our assumptions because it is these assumptions which are often obstacles to making real innovation.  In every organization, we all need to look at the assumptions we make and make those assumptions explicit so that we can examine them and adjust as needed.

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