Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Are you a strong, charismatic and (be honest) controlling leader? Adopt the 'Karajan Way' to ensure your long-term success

'Karajan was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. At a certain point he cued a flute player for a solo, but the cue was completely ambiguous -- a long horizontal movement of Karajan's hand, with nothing indicating "Now!" The bewildered player raised his hand: "With all due respect, Maestro, I don't understand: When would you like me to start?" to which Karajan promptly replied: "You start when you can't stand it anymore."'

From The Ignorant Maestro: How Great leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance by Itay Talgam

What enables a strong, charismatic and controlling leader to achieve consistent long-term success? 

Obviously, they need to communicate an inspiring vision and how to achieve it. They also need the energy, ambition, self-belief and ego that will drive themselves and others towards not only achieving this vision but achieving it 'in the right way' (i.e., the way the leader has foreseen).  

The above alone, however, is not enough. Charismatic and controlling leaders are often perceived as dictator-like figures who must be tolerated in difficult or dangerous times and dispensed with in easier or safer times; longevity of success is not a commonly observed trait.  

How can such leaders avoid this fate?

The long and successful career of Herbert von Karajan, one of the most famous (and all-controlling and egotistical) conductors of the last century, provides an answer.

Karajan's career spanned sixty successful years, three decades of which was as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the secret of his success is hidden within the above quotation.

At first reading, Karajan seems to be giving a facetious reply to a musician's apparently reasonable request. However, reflecting on his reply (and subsequently looking a little more deeply into the great conductor's leadership style and approach) reveals three reasons for the longevity of Karajan's successful career:
  1. He perceived one of his main leadership tasks as making his players look at, relate to and learn from each other. By not giving a precise cue to the flautist, Karajan forced him to listen deeply to the music and find ways of playing with his colleagues that would help him overcome his feeling of uncertainty. Karajan encouraged the flautist to take responsibility for his playing and the quality of ensemble, or togetherness, he achieved with his colleagues. Over time, this approach encouraged Karajan's players to form the closely associated habits of learning from and leading each other, so enhancing the overall adaptability and musicianship of the orchestra. It also, importantly, provided the orchestra's players with enough personal responsibility and limited autonomy to feel that they were more than mere followers of the 'Karajan way'. This feeling of enhanced personal contribution to the orchestra's performances was significant enough to ensure that the relationships between Karajan and his players, although always biased in favour of Karajan and his vision, remained flexible and dynamic enough to not only support their longevity but also maintain their creativity and freshness.             
  2. Where he could, as with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra, he made sure that his musicians had the skills to not only play music at the highest professional level but also play it as he wished it to be performed. Karajan sought and recruited the best musicians from around the globe. He looked especially for those musicians who would be able to not only appreciate his vision and approach but also help develop it during rehearsals and realise it in performance.
  3. He was meticulous in his preparation, making sure that the orchestra was well-practised in meeting his musical demands. If Karajan had delivered the above response to a player who had not been given the opportunity to become familiar with and rehearse Karajan's musical approaches and interpretations, perhaps having been prematurely plunged into an unexpected and scantly rehearsed performance, the player would likely have not only remained confused but also become justifiably angry. This was, however, not the case. Karajan, throughout his 60 year career, was meticulous in his preparation and rehearsal. He gave his players every opportunity to become familiar with the demands of his conducting and musical interpretations. As a result, his players began to not only understand his demands but also find ways to meet them.
To ensure long-term success, charismatic and controlling leaders need more than vision and energetic ambition (and a well-developed ego to drive themselves and others forward). They also need to do the following:
  • Encourage people to learn from and lead each other.
  • Make every effort to recruit people with the right skills and qualities.
  • Provide people with the opportunity to become well-practised in meeting the demands placed upon them.

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