Silence! What CEOs can learn from maestros

In my years as an orchestra conductor — first under the tutelage of the great Leonard Bernstein, and then on my own — I came to realize that what we did as musicians closely relates to business. I tried to lead a large group of people toward a common goal. Each member of the orchestra played his or her own unique role in getting to our ultimate destination as well. And communication between both parties was critical to determine how fast we would get there, and with what results.

Riccardo Muti
Hiroyuki Ito | Getty Images
Riccardo Muti

In a classical orchestra, the man behind the podium could be considered its CEO. His leadership was often taken to be absolute and was not always as romantic or beautiful as the music his orchestra created. But in many cases, the great conductors were extremely cynical, tyrannical, or even abusive. What should an employee do if confronted with a boss possessing these characteristics?

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Aloofness and distance binds today's worst leaders with the tyrannical great conductors. Both take little notice in individual people and their opinions, ideas, or will. These leaders prefer to be viewed as gods, unquestioned and all-knowing, instead of taking into account the individual strengths of the people beneath them.

Ricardo Muti, one of history's great conductors, is famous for his authoritarian, control-freakish style, as much as for his great Italian charisma. When Muti conducted, he controlled and supervised every move and everyone. He often cut off the sound so forcefully that — even after the players had long stopped playing — his hands kept trembling with great effort, as if in a struggle.

His control is top-down, but it originates from even higher above: by his own testimony, Muti sees himself under the control of the musical "lawmaker" — and deviating from the law is a crime. He feels constantly judged by some unforgiving superego — perhaps the spirit of Mozart (or any other great composer whose music he performs) —holding Muti fully accountable for delivering a faithful execution of his score.

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It's not unlike a company CEO, under the constant scrutiny of the board of directors and publicly demonstrating the desire to please that board. Muti rises to the challenge, armed with a clear leadership formula. His proposal is clear-cut: he will take full responsibility, and in return he demands full control. Not just self-control, but control of every detail in the process of executing the one and only correct interpretation — his.

Imagine you're having a short and clear conversation with your boss concerning a very specific detail of your work. As you leave the room you get a text reminder from her to your phone, then an email, a phone call from her assistant, and a note is waiting on your table … not very trusting, is it? Muti's directions always come well ahead of time, as he is busy controlling the next event, rather than sharing with his players the events in the music as they happen. So much effort goes into securing the delivery of his instructions that one wonders: What could happen if, for a little while, there were no instructions? In other words, if Muti, as the CEO of a company, took three days off, would his company collapse? Doesn't he have enough trust in his players' abilities to conduct themselves for even the shortest while? Despite what Muti might think about his employees' abilities, his fear of losing control, inevitably followed by mistakes, trumps. Mistakes cannot be tolerated, as they represent a betrayal of his core responsibility — in Muti's case, to the composer; in your boss, to the board or client.

Can we hope for a Muti type of CEO to change? Common wisdom says that the greatest obstacle to changing yourself is success, while failure can motivate you to look for a new way. Failure by itself may push Muti types to extremes: Either they become Superman or commit a symbolic suicide. If, however, Muti types can let go of control in small, gradual steps that lead to success, they may become more open to change.

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This approach may be the best strategy for employees struggling under Muti-type bosses. You can use your own empathy and understanding to educate your leader about the possible gains in change and growth. Can you show your boss what techniques have been working to improve sales, products, services, or whatever the benchmarks of your business might be? Can you educate them about what some of your competitors have been doing that have successfully impacted their companies? How can you show your boss that by allowing her employees and colleagues more freedom, increased success will be the reward?

Of course, toppling a dictator is always an option, but revolutions carry their own price tags! It is far better to help a Muti grow through strategic baby steps than to endure the possible flame-out of a failure. By showing the strength his employees and company gain through increased autonomy, hope exists to turn a Muti into a boss that keeps his brilliance but loses his militant ways.

Commentary by Itay Talgam, a protégé of the great Leonard Bernstein, who has conducted many prominent orchestras and ensembles worldwide. He also teaches leadership to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities, and at conferences around the world. He is also the author of "The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance." His TED talk "Lead like the great conductors" has received over 2.3 million views. Follow him on Twitter @ItayTalgam.