Credit Beethoven with creating what we know as the modern symphony orchestra. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries when composers, especially Beethoven, demanded more force and complexity in the execution of their works, that symphony orchestras were born. Ranging in size anywhere from 80 to 100 musicians, a symphony orchestra not only provides a magnificent sound, but an engaging illustration of how leadership works. As pharmaceutical company Merck has discovered, watching an orchestra rehearse is an invaluable lesson in corporate management.
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“A symphony conductor, in many ways, has a great deal of mystique about what they do” says Jon Chilingerian, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
To most audiences the conductor may seem like the ‘maestro,’ an authoritarian leader commanding musicians from his podium. But Wolfgang Heinzel, chief conductor of the Merck Orchestra, says: “We have people from different cultures, different nations, sitting there. They know their instruments, they know how to play their parts, but now I have to bring all that together.”
Typically divided into four sections -- woodwind, brass, strings, and percussion -- each group has a ‘principal’ player: the first violinist, first clarinet and so on. Chilingerian calls them the conductor’s executive team. So striking are the parallels between an orchestra and the structure of a modern corporation that Chilingerian and his colleagues wondered: “What could we learn from watching an orchestra rehearse?”
Concert of Merck’s Philharmonic Orchestra in Wiesbaden
During a recent week-long symposium, Merck brought 50 of its most promising management heads together. Much of the time was spent in classrooms with case studies and computer models, but when they watched Maestro Heinzel rehearse a piece by Mendelssohn, what they saw was a dynamic illustration of how a corporate leader can not only direct, but inspire.
Jon Chilingerian is also an Associate Professor of Human Services Management at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.