focused group

A few weeks ago I visited Carnegie Hall to hear a concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a group known for maintaining the highest level of musical artistry while also performing without a conductor. Instead of one director, different members lead each piece, coordinating the rehearsals and giving cues during the performance.

This unique approach has earned them invitations to speak to business leaders around the country, who are interested in how this very diverse, very opinionated group of musicians manages to find harmony, literally and figuratively, through such a process. Harvard and Stanford have studied the group and they’ve conducted seminars at Morgan Stanley, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and many others.

I understand why businesses need help implementing “collective leadership.” Although it sounds simple enough to give each team member the responsibility to collaborate and make decisions, some groups just aren’t up to it. (I still remember trying this at one organization I worked with and the resulting cubicle catfight one morning.)

So I’m not idealizing it. However, today’s companies not only have to compete for customers, but also to keep their most talented employees—folks who are always going to be drawn to positions offering more opportunities for ownership and self-expression.

As I observe Orpheus and think about my own work experiences, a few “must-haves” come to mind for any organization hoping to move this direction.

1. Everyone has to be at the top of their game. At the concert we saw, about 2/3 of the ensemble rotated into the leader spot for a piece. There were no strong players and weak players–everyone was the equivalent of a first violin. To achieve excellent results as a group, each member must first be an excellent individual contributor.

2. Lose the ego. Orpheus describes itself as a “self-governing” ensemble. This means the designated leaders of each piece meet to discuss an approach to interpretation and present that to the group while leading that part of the rehearsal. Together, within sections and as a whole, the members discuss and even debate these suggestions, finally arriving at a consensus. During the performance, the ensemble is absolutely united in every detail of this interpretation. Whether they agreed with a decision or not, each member honors the artistic choice as the final decision of all of them.

3. Plan for more time. The program notes didn’t say how long this process took, but I’m guessing it’s much more time consuming and messy than simply responding to a conductor who makes all the decisions. I’m sure at points during its forty-year history, members have considered how much easier it would be to take this shortcut. However, as my musically-trained companion noted that night, many orchestra and ensemble musicians are unhappy with the rote nature of the process or the lack of personal expression. Not the Orpheus folks—they were obviously having a blast. Sometimes the highest quality, in finished product and in process, takes more time.

Orpheus says it “strives to empower its musicians by integrating them into virtually every facet of the organization, literally changing the way the world thinks about musicians, conductors, and orchestras.”

Could we change the way people think about church staffs, nonprofit leadership, and business success? If the church is serious about people using their “giftedness,” should we rethink current models? How does this affect your organization?