By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker
Eric Whitacre is a popular contemporary choral composer with a massive social media following. He has written some amazing pieces, including “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” and “When David Heard.” This recollection from Mr. Whitacre reminded me of one of the tenets of leadership in which I believe very strongly: trust the good people around you. I’ll let him tell you about his experience in his own words.
I had an unexpected, profound learning experience in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.
I was conducting Equus in the final rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale. The first performance was that night so time was tight and the pressure was on.
Even though I wrote it, Equus is easily the most difficult piece I have ever conducted…
…during this final rehearsal there are 16 measures I just can’t solve. During earlier rehearsals I had tried breaking it down and rehearsing the individual parts slowly, but the orchestra and chorus are still struggling to play it as an ensemble and I can feel the musicians becoming frustrated. Worst of all, it is becoming very clear that the only problem is the conductor. ME. I am actually confusing them with my attempt to keep them together.
So I say to them, “I’d like to try an experiment. Let’s play it again, and as soon as we get to letter ‘K’ I am going to put down my hands and stop conducting. I’ll start conducting again at letter ‘M’… let’s just see what happens.” A few looks of hesitation from the orchestra, but everyone seems game.
So we take off, and when we get to letter ‘K’ I put my hands down and do nothing but listen. All 200 musicians play it PERFECTLY, as crisp and thrilling as I imagined it would be when I wrote it. And we did the same thing for both concerts: I would get to letter ‘K’, put my hands down and do a little dance, smile, and the players would take the reins. (So to speak).
It was such a powerful lesson for me, to simply let go and allow the experts to do what they do best. And it was a great reminder for me as a conductor: the players are making the music, not the conductor, and when the musicians are confident, prepared and focused the best thing you can do for them as a leader is get the hell out of their way and let ‘em dance.
When I read this, I thought about how like an orchestra a company is: every section has a function it needs to perform, be it the brass or the marketing team, and together (you hope) they make beautiful, successful music. I also saw a parallel to what I have believed for years: what you need to do in a company is hire great people and then get out of their way.
As the composer, you are the one writing the score (your plan and strategy) and sometimes, your company members will know how to play their parts in it even better than you imagined. As the conductor, a leader needs to know the score, how to keep everyone together, and when to let each section shine. Together, you can perform brilliantly.
Have you ever experienced this phenomenon? What great leadership metaphors have helped you?
Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book “The Purpose Is Profit: Secrets of a Successful Entrepreneur from Startup to Exit” with Wyn Lydecker and Paul McLaughlin.
Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.