Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

The other day I watched a playdown fall entirely apart at the Pennsylvania Suzuki Strings Institute. I have also watched many hours of Hershey Symphony Festival Strings over the four years that my daughter played, and eventually served as concert master, under maestro Sandra Dackow. There is a reason I'm bringing this up now (in addition to the fact that I tend to work my daughter's musical life and accomplishments into as many conversations as possible--see also: here). These two experiences have allowed me to entirely figure out the presidential race.

Explain? Okay, but it's so obvious you're going to feel silly for asking.

I believe that conducting can serve as an illuminating study of leadership. In essence, it is an attempt to exert influence over a group without being able to talk to them or touch them. You're thinking that conductors talk to their ensembles all the time--they do, but when they do it's rehearsing, not conducting.

True conducting is a form of mind-control: a non-verbal language by which you can ask for things, and provide feedback on what you're getting, through subtle aspects of facial expression and gesture. For example, if a conductor's beat is just ahead of the ensemble, the ensemble should speed up. If the gesture suddenly becomes small, the players should get quieter. Sometimes a section is brought in with just a look or a raised eyebrow. The gestures you see from the audience are rarely the ones where the real communication is going on.

Suzuki leaders are essentially doing the same thing, with the slight advantage of also making sound with their instruments. When the groups get large enough, however, this is a tiny advantage indeed. At some point it's more the movement of the bow and facial cues at work. Although the players very near the leader can use their ears as well, and the players closest to them can extend this range to those around them and so on, this all causes tiny delays that can slow the tempo if visual cues aren't also applied. 

What I've seen Sandra Dackow do in rehearsal lots of times, and saw the Suzuki cello leader do at the playdown, is to exhibit such strength-of-will that she'll let the whole thing fall apart around her, even with people watching, rather than yield to the wishes of the group. The truth is, most of us who conduct enter into a bargain in which we promise not to do anything too strange, and the group agrees to allow us to think we're in control. If we identify a spot where we plan to request more flexibility, this can be negotiated, but in my experience the conductor most often does what the ensemble wants--even if he/she was the one who determined what the ensemble was going to want. In most cases, the control over the ensemble happens in rehearsal, and conducting is reduced to an elaborately choreographed dance to encourage things along.

Gov. Romney and the President are engaged in a similar dance with the American people.

The truth is, these two men seem to be much more alike than different in the ways they deal with this stuff. Mr. Obama worked out where the winds were blowing on marriage equality, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the withdrawal from Iraq and then showed the strength of character to act or speak out. I don't mean to suggest that where he ended up on these things was bad, just that he wasn't particularly brave in the timing of when it all went down. Mr. Romney apparently found negotiating room on healthcare, tax policy, and abortion. It's possible that these men really did have their minds changed. In fact, I don't think politicians should always be vilified when this happens, given that the alleged purpose of discourse is to try to persuade people to change their minds. However, I seen in these examples a particular style of leadership:

"There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, French politician (1807-1874)

Perhaps equally puzzling and frustrating are times when they ignore us and act (or fail to act) against our express wishes. For Romney, this can most easily be seen with the tax return mess, where even people on his own side have been hammering him. Obama isn't immune either, though. His signature healthcare plan was shoved through before anyone was quite ready for it, and it's full-up with Republican ideas (see also: here, and here). He is/was similarly happy to ignore us on financial bailouts, climate change, and education.

If it sounds like I'm criticizing both men for both approaches, well, I guess I am. It begs the question: what else is there?

The difference between the Sandra Dackow crashes and the the Suzuki playdown one is that Dr. Dackow has spent years developing a relationship with her orchestras, earning their respect and fierce devotion. The students (as well as the adults in the Hershey Symphony, I assume, though I haven't observed much of their rehearsing) desperately want to follow. When they don't, it is typically incompetence, not defiance. In the other example, she stood her ground on the basis that she was the named leader, and had pretty much the biggest instrument (if anyone was inclined to measure).

Somewhere in there is the difference between true leadership and basically abusing power by indulging an obstinate streak. So far, I think what we've seen from both political candidates is a tendency to try to position themselves deep in the center of their own constituency, while occasionally ignoring us completely to show how independent they are. Both things are worthy of criticism, because they stem from the same failing--seeing our position on these things as fixed and unchangeable.True leadership would be meeting us where we are and moving us in a better direction.

I can't claim to be confused by this. We've gotten the political system that we deserve, in that we don't really elect people, we elect a collection of ideology. The result so far is a highly partisan Court, a dysfunctional Legislature, and a President who can't really accomplish anything due to the two other branches. Any politician who doesn't act exactly the way we want, or at least mostly the way we want, is out of a job. It means that true moderates are a dying breed, and we're devolving into an ever-coarsening national conversation. Leaders aren't so much leading, as they are advertising their positions to the people who will vote for them, send them money, or both. Debate--on the floors of the houses of Congress, or in presidential races--aren't actually an effort to change minds as much as joint/dueling press conferences and extended political ads.

Hey, I said I'd figured it out; I never said that I'd solved it.


  1. Intriguing. Do you think Chelsea will make it to conducting someday??

  2. I'm sure she could. She's got great musical skills, and definite strength of her convictions. Lots of times it's a matter of giving an answer and being confident that it's the right one. Like parenting, I guess.