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The Law of Empowerment

February 8, 2013

(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 Twelve (or, Chapter Twelve, as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of the Empowerment.” The byline for this chapter reads, “Only a Secure Leader Gives Power to Others.”

Conducting an orchestra (or any ensemble) is odd business, if you think about it. When I am asked about what it is I do, I usually wind up telling the person who asks that I am “the only person on stage who isn’t making a sound.” That usually doesn’t seem to occur to the other person. “Oh yeah, you’re right… you’re just holding a stick and waving your arms!” True, but we conductors know it’s much more than that, right?

Empowerment is a big word for me. I believe it is the conductor’s role to empower the ensemble to make almost all the important choices.  Chief among those choices has to be listening, but you can add pulse, balance, blend, phrasing, and a host of others. The truly great conductors seem to know where the balance is between empowering their group and when to step in and make important decisions.

Maxwell begins this chapter discussing the American legendary businessman and industrialist, Henry Ford

(Henry Ford)

Henry Ford is credited with many positive things about industrialism and production. But, all of his moves were not successes full of positive acheievement.  Take, for instance, his beloved Model T. He believed so much in the design of the car that he never wanted it changed, or even tinkered with. One day his engineers presented him with a prototype of a “new and improved” Model T, featuring new designs and the latest in technology. Ford was so furious at the engineers that he reported ran over to the car, ripped the doors off their hinges, and proceeded to take the car apart with his bare hands! For 20 years the Ford Motor Company only offered the Model T, which Ford had developed. It wasn’t until 1927 that Ford finally agreed to offer a new car to the public – the Model A. The Model A, unfortunately, was behind the competition in design and features, and by 1931 Ford Motor Company only held 28 percent of sales in the USA.

Ford was the opposite of an empowering leader. He was insecure, controlling, and manipulative. He even went so far as to create a socialogical department within Ford Motor Company that monitored the private lives of his executives. It was Ford’s ego that nearly drove his company into bankruptcy in the 1930s. The company was about him and his ego, not about the product line, or even the contributions of the intelligent, creative people who worked for him.

Henry Ford II, son of Edsel Ford, eventually became the president of the company, at a time when the company was losing $1 million a day. Edsel felt he was in over his head. So, what did he do? He went out and found the best and brightest people he could! By 1949 Ford was on a roll and sold more than a million Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns that year. Sounds like things were going well, right? Henry Ford II was a very insecure person, and only secure leaders are comfortable giving some of their power to others. The more insecure Ford II became, the more he began to undermine his executive staff, pitting them at times one against another. These behaviors naturally led to eventual firings and resignations.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”  Isn’t that important to us as conductors? Get good people on staff, or good musicians in your group, and don’t get in their way!

(Theodore Roosevelt)

No one benefits if you, as conductor, alienate good people and strong leaders. One thing I say quite often is, “A rising tide floats all boats.” If people in your organization are elevating standards, let them contribute.

What are the barriers between a leader and empowerment? Maxwell provides a list:

  1. Desire for Job Security
  2. Resistance to Change
  3. Lack of Self-Worth

Regarding number one above, we in the conducting business know how hard it is to get work. For some conductors it is far easier to win a job than to keep it. For some, the opposite is true. I have seen many a conductor operate out of fear: their decisions are based almost solely on the fear they will lose their job. Even worse, they fear that someone will have a “better” idea or method than them, and they will lose their job.

John Wooden once said, “Not all change is progress.” So, while some conductors are resistant to change (think how many orchestra conductors program!), change for change sake is not necessarily progress.

Maxwell correctly states, “Many people gain their personal value and esteem from their work or position.” When a person doesn’t have confidence from within, they struggle to empower others.

Mark Twain once remarked that, “Great things can happen when you don’t care who gets the credit.” This is probably the biggest emotional hurdle for most conductors; they want full credit for all the beauty and greatness that can happen on stage. It’s once that desire for credit disolves that truly great things can happen. The conductor begins more focused on what they are doing rather than how they are doing.

File:Abraham Lincoln November 1863.jpg

(Abraham Lincoln)

Abraham Lincoln was known as a leader who sought to empower others. The fascinating book, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin tells of Lincoln’s thirst for differing opinion. He was not threatened by others’ opinions, and considered it to be a healthy trait to seek out balance. In June of 1863, Lincoln sent a letter to General George G. Meade, who was newly appointed as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

“Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you. You will not be hampered by any minute instructions from these headquarters. Your army is free to act as you deem proper under the circumstances as they arise… All forces within the sphere of your operations will be held subject to your orders.”

Lincoln’s leadership style instilled confidence and authority to those willing to accept it (such as Ulysses S. Grant). Our leadership, as conductors, can instill the same sense of confidence in our musicians.

A key to empowerment is belief in other people; when you push people down, you go down with them. Enlarging others makes you larger, and it makes your ensemble larger. That is the impact of the Law of Empowerment.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 11, 2013 12:59 pm

    Excellent post! I enjoyed the good as well as the poor examples of leadership and [hopefully] learned from both. TY!

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