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The Law of Solid Ground

May 26, 2011

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Six (or, Chapter Six as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law Solid Ground.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “Trust is the Foundation of Leadership.”

When I first read this book, this byline had me thinking before I even began the chapter! I have often taught younger conductors that the one of their fundamental characteristics is that they must trust. The conductor must trust that composer got it right and that the score is worth advocating without too much “improvement” on his/her part. The conductor must trust the ensemble to work together, contribute, and grow musically. The conductor must trust the soloists within the orchestra, and the guest artists who join the orchestra.  Trust is an enormous factor in conducting, especially since the conductor is the only one in the ensemble who makes no sound!

Maxwell begins this chapter with an anecdote about a church he was pastor for in San Diego.  Each year this church would mount a major Christmas production.  Before we go further, this brought up an anecdote from my past I would like to share with you.

During my second or third year as Associate Conductor for an orchestra in Colorado I was approached by a local Minister of Music for conducting lessons.  When we had our first session I asked him what his goals were. He said, “My church puts on a large Christmas and Easter production each year. It involves an orchestra that we hire. I get to conduct the orchestra, which is fun, but I usually have to go to the chiropractor for weeks after the production closes.” He was trying so hard physically to “make” things happen with his body because he had (probably unconsciously) no trust in the musicians. We spent many weeks working on that issue, along with basic conducting technique.

Continuing with Maxwell, he discusses the problems that arose when he made unilateral decisions regarding the Christmas program, the firing of an employee, and the elimination of the Sunday evening service.  The decisions were not incorrect, he maintains, but rather the method of implementing them was. This began a downward spiral in which people in the congregation began to trust him less and less, and his attitude worsened. He eventually figured out that it was his own bad decisions that caused the unrest in the congregation and he apologized publicly to them for it.

As conductors, we often work with a board of directors (I have worked with many boards over the past 17 years). And, while we are afforded a certain scope of authority and responsibility (I refuse to call it “power.”) we still owe our boards and musicians clear and professional communication. When that communication from the conductor to the board breaks down bad things usually follow. People in the organization become concerned, or worse yet, begin to draw their own conclusions for the conductor’s behavior. It is our duty to be collegial and communicative – even better if it is friendly, respectful, and polite.

“Trust is the foundation of leadership,” Maxwell writes. “To build trust, a leader must exemplify these qualities: competence, connection, and character.” A resume can communicate qualifications, but not character. It is our chance to build our “character resume,” as I call it, every day. When conductors take an orchestra on a “journey” – whether or not it is a single concert, concert season, or an actual tour – the orchestra’s perception of that journey is largely dictated by the conductor’s trustworthiness. Who wants to take a journey led by someone they don’t trust?

How do you build trust? Craig Weatherup explains, “You don’t build trust by talking about it. You build trust by achieving results, always with integrity and in a manner that shows real personal regard for people with whom you work.” How many orchestra conductors do we know that are accused of the opposite? So many that it is almost a cliche! (So-and-so conductor might have been a good musician, but we were just their vessel. So-and-so conductor thinks they are great, but they don’t know how to communicate to real people. On and on it goes!) Respect is an absolutely essential element for effective and lasting leadership.

Maxwell writes, “How do leaders earn respect? By making sound decisions, admitting their mistakes, and putting what’s best for their followers and their organization ahead of their personal agendas.” When I read this I began to believe Maxwell might know some orchestral conductors personally!

The next chapter in the book is entitled “The Law of Respect.” See you for the next blog post!

Brian St. John

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