Roaring applause shook Symphony Hall as he strode to center stage and leapt to the podium like an Indy car driver hopping into the cockpit. Arms raised heavenward, fingers twitching on his baton like thoroughbreds in the starting gates, then a single down stroke of his white-gloved hand unleashed sounds that echoed through our souls. He was a great conductor.

But what if he suddenly rushed into the woodwind section, shoved the clarinet player aside, grabbed his instrument and began to play the part? Then with clarinet firmly in his teeth, what if he snatched the drumsticks from the percussionist and began thumping the tympani as he scurried to chastise the cello?

I know radio managers who conduct their orchestras that way.

An orchestra conductor would never attempt to play an instrument during a performance or be critical of a player in front of the audience. Conductors audition and hire the best players, rehearse them on the music, add a bit of their own interpretative style, and inspire everyone to do their best. They don’t play an instrument. How do you suppose a great conductor would respond if the concert hall owner suggested the music be played a little faster so he could squeeze a second matinee on the schedule?

Likewise, a manager should be an insulator between owners and employees, not a conduit between them. Good managers protect employees from the sticky, green stress that oozes like mud from the boardroom. They do not transfer it. When a manager begins to reflect the mood of the owner, the music is about to get ugly.

Great managers create great cultures and hire people who will fit into them. Then they quickly step out of the way, giving guidance rather than commands, leading those people rather than driving them. They manage individually, rather than managing everyone alike.

When a musician in an orchestra keeps hitting the wrong notes, a replacement is made quietly but swiftly. Great managers likewise know they can’t keep great employees if they retain weak ones, so they hire slow and fire fast.

The best managers, like great conductors, appear confident, invigorated and passionate throughout the performance. Like great conductors, they make it look effortless, always providing a great experience and a wonderful show.

Here’s a crazy idea: Why not invite the conductor of your local symphony to lunch and ask them to share their secrets of leadership? How do they get the players in step with each other; how do they handle squabbles or raise the bar? I honestly believe it would be a fabulous investment of your time. You up for it?

11/01/04 Radio Ink Magazine. B. Eric Rhoads