Listen, Then Lead

By: Samantha Whitehorne

Conductor Roger Nierenberg says if leaders want to take their organizations into the future, not only do they have to listen to what's going on around them, but they also have to make sure everyone's hearing what the leader hears.

On the surface, a leader may not see the similarities between a conductor and an executive. But veteran conductor Roger Nierenberg is quick to point out the commonalities. As creator of The Music Paradigm, a leadership program that places executives among orchestra members to teach them how to deal with change and the challenges that come with it, Nierenberg has coached many organizations and their leaders. His experience with the program led him to write the book Maestro: A Surprising Story About Leading by Listening last fall.

In this business parable, the executive character decides to observe a conducting lesson in order to become more effective in his leadership role. He continues to go to orchestra rehearsals and performances, learning different lessons from the maestro character each time, including how to give the people who work for you creative freedom and get them to work together at the same time. Associations Now spoke to Nierenberg about the book, the importance of vision, and how leaders can get everyone to see the bigger picture that is required for future success.

Associations Now: In the book, the conductor character talks about how his role is to create an environment where the motivation springs just as much from the orchestra as from him—to get the musicians to own the music. What can leaders do to make this happen within their organizations?

Roger Nierenberg: First of all, you have to have the vision of what it's like when the workforce is engaged in that way. That happens when the mission and the vision of what can be achieved lives so much in everybody's imaginations, and it's that important to them. That's what you strive for. So it means that, first of all, you have to have clarity of the vision and the vision has to be lofty and inspiring. Then it has to be clearly enough articulated so that everybody can understand it and can own it.

A few quotes from the book really stuck out to me. One of the first was, "If a leader wants his people to truly own the work, then he has to be willing to let go of some control." Why do you think it is so necessary for a leader to do that?

I'm glad that you mentioned that because it's a sentence that could be easily misunderstood. It's not that the leader has to give up control, but it's that sometimes by sharing your power you acquire more of it than you do when you try to hold it for yourself. In some organizations, certain people have the idea that information is power and the way to get more power is to get information and then to hoard it and keep it away from other people. Those people who do acquire a certain kind of power but at the same time share what they know with others can end up acquiring a lot more influence and a lot more effectiveness. Because in giving away that kind of control, you actually end up acquiring more. …

Some leaders feel that the more they make their people dependent upon them, the more control over them they have. But the fact is when people feel that they can use what it is that they have to offer, there's a kind of an energy which is liberated.

In another chapter, you discuss flow. The metaphor I got from it was how easily people get hindered by silos and not knowing what others are doing or what happens next. How can a leader fix that problem and get people to move beyond their departments or their silos?

"If the leader is aware of the difference
between the podium view and the view
from the chairs, he will make sure to
continually communicate to people
about what the podium point of view
is showing him."
—Roger Nierenberg

I think by being sensitized to the problem and the fact that this continually occurs. Once an organization becomes complex and there are certain boundaries and divisions and things like that, those boundary points are the place that a leader has to be particularly attentive to [in order] to make sure that things don't stop there, that they continue to move, that awareness travels across boundaries, and that communication travels across boundaries.

And I think by continuing to communicate about that with your people to make it a priority for them and then to draw to people's attention when you see an example of something that went particularly well or something that didn't go particularly well so that you can sensitize an entire organization to a priority. If flow of information and flow of goods becomes an important priority, as it is in any manufacturing organization—really any organization—then I think people become much more attuned to it.

In another part of the book, you discuss how as a leader—or as a maestro or conductor—you see the whole picture, but others are usually unaware of that whole picture. How can you let people see what you see as a leader?

If the leader is aware of the difference between the podium view and the view from the chair and understands that anybody sitting in the chair cannot grasp what the view is from the podium, then he will make sure that it's part of his job to continually communicate to people about what the podium point of view is showing him and telling him about. The podium point of view applies in many different ways. From the podium you see the whole picture, but you can also see further into the future.

Leaders are in a position, because of the information that they have, to be much more aware of trends than many people who are engaged in the details of day-to-day tasks can be. So the leader is there to see the big trends and then to communicate them in a way [so] that these larger trends become reality to people.

Your previous two answers have stressed communication. So many people think communicating is a lot of talking, but your book stresses the importance of listening.

Online Extra: Leading With a Vision

Associations Now: I know in your first answer you talked about the importance of vision and having clarity and being lofty and inspiring. Do you think an organization can be successful without a vision?

Roger Nierenberg: I don’t know about that. I know a conductor can. An orchestra certainly can’t.  I suppose if somebody comes up with something that is incredibly useful and incredibly necessary and just offers it, they’ll find success in the services or the products that they are offering.

But as organizations get complex and the customer gets more and more abstracted from the workplace, then the vision of the future becomes more important. Also, it may be that an organization, which is successful and which stands on its success and continues to replicate it, will very likely come to a point where the world has moved on and it s left behind because the vision is not attached to where the world is going.

And that, of course, we know is very common, especially in today’s world where things happen, changes happen so fast, and new technologies sweep in and they redefine what it means to do business and communicate and all that.

Yes, well, there are so many dimensions to it. Organizations work well when people listen to each other. If you have a meeting, you want people to walk out of the meeting with some assurance that everybody has the same idea about what was decided, what went on, and what the organization's attitude toward it is.

The way a leader leads discussions is significant. Not only can she model excellent leading, but she can look after the listening of other people. For example, when you're a conductor, part of your job is to be aware not only of the playing of the orchestra, but also how the orchestra is listening. What are they hearing? Because even though that doesn't appear to matter, it's actually one of the most crucial factors in terms of the orchestra succeeding. … As a leader, you become accountable for the way people listen. It's not only their affair. It's your affair as well. That's one of the ways in which listening is so important.

Another theme from the book was the idea of giving members of the orchestra—or when it comes to leadership, members of your team or other people you manage—autonomy and letting them feel like they can make a difference.

What I'd say is that people work best when they feel their own power. It's very easy for people to fall into a kind of obedient behavior—to do what they're told—and when people do that they carry out the instructions but they don't offer anything else other than what's being asked of them.

So the question becomes this: How do you get people to give things that are not specifically being asked, which nobody may know that they have to offer? How do you get them to offer that when it could be a constructive thing?

The thing is you don't want everybody offering everything that they have to you. You want them to have some sense of, "What are our goals? What is our strategy? What can be achieved?" But at the same time, you want them as a whole person to give you all that they have in that way.

The obedience mode doesn't work very well for drawing on all of that talent, and that's become increasingly important in today's world where innovation is so critical. And because information is so widely disseminated, important innovation can really come from any place within an organization. If you have a mindset of innovation and creativity, you're much more likely to have ideas bubble up from within the organization. All that becomes possible when people feel their own power [and] their own ability to get things done.

Another quote that I pulled out from the book when I was reading it was, "As leaders we strive to exert the minimum necessary intervention." Can you explain that?

It seems like a paradox in a way, doesn't it? As the leader you see that certain things need to be accomplished, and they can't be accomplished by you. They have to be accomplished by other people, and your job is to give directives to make those things happen.

Now you can give a directive that will make it clear as to what has to happen, that provides the resources and so forth, and that can be successful, but you can also continue to give more directives about it and continue to intervene and continue to reinforce that message. However, once you've reached the minimum necessary level, any more directing that you do is going to just get in the way.

There's a colleague of mine who runs a fascinating coaching business for executives called The Horse as Coach. She brings these executives to her stable, and she introduces them to the horse, which is huge and much, much stronger than the executive. The executive's job is to control the horse, but what you discover is that with certain kinds of commands the horse is just not going to do it.

And there's absolutely nothing you can do to force that horse, because it has the power. What tends to work in those circumstances is the minimum necessary direction. Now it has to be what's necessary in order to bring it about. We're not saying the minimum direction is the better, but the minimum necessary direction, because when you start to overload with direction, then you start to erode the energy and the willingness of your workforce.

You end the book by saying, "The maestro is the one who lays the foundation for learning." How can an association or nonprofit leader lay that foundation for learning?

When I write that in the book, I'm talking about "maestro" in the sense of the Italian meaning of the word. The maestro is the one who teaches the big values. I think the sense here is that the leader understands that his influence is going to be greatest not by intervening in the particular operations so much, but by giving a general sense of who you are, why what you're doing is important, and what people can contribute. And, of course, if necessary, you sometimes go into the weeds. Leaders as well as maestros are not afraid to do that. However, they have to maintain the big-picture view from the podium and allow others throughout all levels of their organizations to also imagine that view. 

Roger Nierenberg is a veteran conductor and creator of The Music Paradigm, a program that allows executives to sit in on an orchestra rehearsal. He will also be a Thought Leader at ASAE & The Center's 2010 Annual Meeting & Expo, taking place in Los Angeles from August 21 to 24. Visit his website at

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]