Lead Softly, but Carry a Big Baton

Symphony conductor Roger Nierenberg knows a thing or two about creative management. How else do you get the piccolos and the percussion to stay on the same page?

“You!” says the orchestra conductor, waving his baton at a couple of stocky fellows in the percussion section. “You are so right for this!”


It’s the last session of Bank of America’s Florida sales convention, and 200 or so managers and executives are sitting amid an orchestra of classical musicians. Conductor Roger Nierenberg is striding toward the two executives he has singled out, his tuxedo coattails flapping.

“I’m now radically shifting your relationship with this organization,” says Nierenberg, leading the men up to the podium. “The orchestra is going to play. Your job up here is to listen.”

“But I want to conduct!” protests one of the men. A woman seated in the audience calls out: “See what I have to deal with every day?” Everyone laughs.

Taking a team of talented, independent players and turning them into a well-tuned symphony is routine for musical conductors. Now Nierenberg, 54, whose day job is leading Connecticut’s Stamford Symphony Orchestra, has created a program called “The Music Paradigm.” He teaches managers at companies such as Georgia-Pacific and Lucent Technologies how to be better leaders by giving them a musician’s-eye view of a conductor at work. Here are a few lessons and observations from the maestro.

A leader is someone who commits to what hasn’t happened yet.

I’m always a step ahead of the musicians — I’m showing them where the music needs to go and why. If you get scared on the podium, you start following the orchestra. Musicians hate it when you do that.

A leader defines for the team what kind of moment they’re in. Is this a moment of transition? Is this a dangerous moment? Your job as conductor is to get the orchestra to act together — powerfully. So what do you do? You can’t be calling out to people, “Act now! Act now!” That creates disorder. Instead, you say, “Here’s where we’re headed.”


Don’t blame the orchestra.

I had one experience where I had only one rehearsal with a major orchestra before a concert, and it went absolutely horribly. So when I stepped out in front of the audience the next day, I was sure that the performance was going to be an embarrassment. To my astonishment, the orchestra played perfectly. What I hadn’t realized was that during the practice, the musicians were reading from illegible photocopies, so all of their energy was going into deciphering what was on the page. By concert time, they knew the music well enough to get the job done. What did I learn? Never assume. Be sure you know the cause before you decide that you have to fix the problem.

Give people permission to be their best.

When teams don’t execute as well as you’d like them to, your tendency is to think you have to adjust your connection with the team. But a lot of times, people are unconsciously waiting for permission to do what they’re capable of doing. That may seem blatantly obvious to the leader, of course, but the team members need to be told. They’re trying to gauge the right level of participation. People often are completely capable of a much higher level of performance, but they haven’t gotten the green light from the podium.

Contact Roger Nierenberg by email (

Sidebar: To Get Results, Hit the Right Note

If you’re in charge of a team that’s been underperforming, how do you change its behavior? How do you communicate without offending or alienating members? “No one wants to underperform, yet so many people do,” says conductor Roger Nierenberg. Why? “Because there are an enormous number of parameters for judging performance, and most people don’t know what aspect to work on. But as the leader, you stand on a podium and therefore have access to the big picture. Things that are amazingly obvious from the podium are not at all clear from the chair. Your job as a leader is to communicate a sense of how things could be — and to show people how to achieve that vision.

“How do you do all that? By giving direction, not criticism. Direction points to the way things could be. Criticism, on the other hand, points to the way things were. It doesn’t enlighten people. Direction tells people what to do, whereas criticism tells people what not to do. Here’s a criticism: ‘The percussion section is playing too loudly.’ A direction is, ‘Make sure the audience can hear the woodwinds.’

“It’s much harder to process a ‘do not’ instruction than a ‘do’ instruction, because the ‘do not’ means you have to locate a behavior, inhibit it, figure out what to replace it with, and then replace it. The ‘do’ instruction means something more direct: ‘Do this.’ You’re offering a new vision, a different tool. Leadership is about preparation. It means actually inventing a whole new experience and then communicating it to the people you work with. If your team executes your direction and the results improve, then people begin to put their trust in you. That’s how you gain credibility as a leader.”