Friday, December 7, 2012

Maestros and leadership

Joana Carneiro in Action
An example of leadership in action is a maestro conducting an orchestra. There are quite a few take-aways from it, but this article is about a recent paper published on the Public Library of Science - "Leadership in Orchestra Emerges from the Causal Relationships of Movement Kinematics". The take-away? The more influence the conductor has the better the quality of the music played.
Please keep on reading to get all the details.

It's funny how you manage to find useful information. In Portugal, there are some free low quality newspapers (that are supported by ads alone) and I recently happened to notice a small article entitled "Do Maestros influence the musicians?" (or something like that) in one of them. What really caught my eye was that the article was based on a paper published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) - which I didn't know. And this got me curious enough to make a note of that and later give it a closer look. And I'm really glad I did it.

The study

The purpose of the study was to determine if there was a causal relationship between the quality of the music and the communication between, on one hand maestros and musicians and, on the other hand among musicians. So they set up an experiment with 8 had musicians playing violin with 2 different conductors, all playing the very same pieces. Besides collecting data from the maestros and the musicians (the positions and movement of the bows and the baton) they had specialists listening to the end result and classify it in terms of a few qualitative parameters. In fact, it was a bit more complex than this, but you can get all the details online using the link above for this paper.
In the paper, Alessandro D'Audilio et al start to make a distinction between coordinated action and joint action. Coordinated action is defined as "a successful degree of synchrony/complementarity between actions performed by at least two individuals" while joint action "require the sharing of the same goal but does not necessarily requires a specific motor coordination among all agents". In this scenario, we're talking about coordinated action at a very complex level: everything from tempo to rhythm has to be perfectly coordinated to the instant.
Music experts listened to the recordings and classified them on several quality parameters.

The conclusions?

Beyond all the technical and scientific aspects of this work (how to separate the conductor influence from the the musicians influence on a particular musician), they get several conclusions about leadership and the relationships between conductors and musicians but the ones that I found most relevant were the following:
  1. "The increase of conductor-to-musicians influence, together with the reduction of musician-to-musician coordination (an index of successful leadership) goes in parallel with quality of execution". This actually makes some sense to me because paying attention to what one person is doing and react accordingly to her/his actions is much simpler than to pay attention to everything around you (all the other musicians) and react accordingly. On the other hand, centering everything in one person can overload her/him...
  2. "Action mirroring, however, does not facilitate coordinated action per se, in fact, coordination may often require the execution of different/complementary actions between participants". Doing like others do doesn't make things better, right? If the others are doing it wrong or doing things that you just don't need to be doing, you're just wasting time being unproductive, at the best.
  3. "The conductor will significantly change the perceived quality of a piece when s/he both increases his/her influence on musicians and, at the same time, expresses a personality able to overshadow the inter-musician communication. In simpler terms, this might be the essence of leadership". This sounds to me like you have to play ball with the leader - and if the leader is any good, you'll reach your goal. And this sounds good because in general people around the leader will know if s/he is any good.

Applying it to Project Management

Project managers don't do the work

It is never said in the article, but the most basic lesson you can take on conductors and apply into Project Management is that a conductor doesn't play with the orchestra, that is not his job. If it was, s/he would have to focus both on managing the musicians and the music being played and actually playing something fitting what s/he, as a conductor, wants in terms of rhythm, emotion, tempo and so on. The take-away for project managers is obvious but I, as a project manager, still do some of the work in the project and I find that pretty common.

Center everything on the project manager

This is actually what I see most of the time around me. The bad news is that you end up overloading the project manager if everything is up to him. The good part is that you can (try to) educate those around you and delegate most of the stuff dropped on your desk.

Don't do like others do

Mirroring other people's actions doesn't seem a good idea unless you're training someone by showing s/he what or how to do something. But in general it is a good idea to have an environment where people don't feel the need to compare to each other. A simple example that comes to mind is when someone leaves the office early. If this happens in your team, do the rest of the team members think it's unfair that have to stay in the office when others can leave early? Or do they worry if everything is OK with the person who left?

Team members independence

And finally, the greater the independence between team member and the greater the influence of the project manager the better things turn out. Why? Focus to start with, for the same reason exposed earlier - and this one is really important. But it also means that you probably don't have small clubs within your team. What it doesn't mean is that team members shouldn't care about the other team members - they just shouldn't worry about comparing their work with the work of others.


While from another area, this paper raises interesting questions on leadership in action. It makes perfect sense to me to center the project work communication between the project manager and the team members but... the relations between them are all too important!
What do you think?

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