“A true Master does more with less: a powerful lesson from Leonard Bernstein”

by Didier Marlier on Sunday October 24th, 2010

I often feel privileged to work for the clients I serve. I am also very fortunate to count on exceptionally gifted partners coming from such different backgrounds as academia, psychology, consultancy, business, military or arts.

Nick McRoberts is one of my partners. His original education is in classical music (as a conductor). He still follows regularly master classes and directs philharmonic orchestras around the world. Not so long ago, we were running a workshop for 50 of the outstanding “ChampionShip Leaders”, of a French firm called DCNS. Those leaders are active change “viral ambassadors” and I call them outstanding as I have a tremendous respect for those who take personal risks and commit an incredible amount of energy in promoting change in a passionate way. During the workshop we had the impression that some of those “viral leaders” were also somewhat anxious… Anxious to see the turnaround take place, anxious to build a sustainable future for their firm, anxious to do what is right for their people.

Nick suddenly disappeared and came back minutes later with a powerful metaphor inspired by his “other passion”… On the first clip, he projected one of the highlights of his young and promising career: You see him conducting here the 1st Movement of Brahms’ First Symphony with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway.

By the end, our audience applauded in admiration. Nick shared that he was following Masterclasses since 10 years with Maestro Jorma Panula (who also coached Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic amongst many). “And what has been my Master’s feedback ever since I started working with him, including on this piece?: DO LESS”… Do less…”. Nick said.

When reflecting with Jorma Panula on what caused him to overdo his leadership act, Nick discovered that the most probable reason for it: although Nick was obviously enthusiastic, engaged and concentrated, he probably was thinking “What value am I actually adding? They know this piece as well as me and they’ve played it 60 times!”. Therefore, Nick assumed it useful to mark his territory and be noticed and supportive by being present, engaged and… gesticulating too much for the Master’s taste…

In the room, we all felt this was probably an exaggeration from the old conductor, so, Nick reminded us how venerated the great Master conductor Leonard Bernstein was. And he invited us to watch, in a religious silence the extraordinary piece here below:

With minimal mimics, hands and stick under his arms, Bernstein conducts an outstanding orchestra who performs in an exceptional manner. Our audience commented this rare piece and great insights came out:

  • Leonard Bernstein is very present and engaged with his team. He is not abandoning them. Devolving is not abdicating
  • By his humble posture, the Maestro unleashes the energy of his orchestra. Faced to such an unusual gesture of trust and respect, the team will do their utmost to prove their leader right
  • The team and their leader are intellectually and emotionally “in sync” and aligned on a shared, superior Purpose
  • Leonard Bernstein presents us with a formidable and counterintuitive challenge: How to do only the essential –eliminate all the excessive energy and arm waving- to truly provide conditions for others to be their best…

Nick and I wanted to share this, as we see so many of you, taking on courageously heavy responsibilities and… the stress and anxiety that goes with such missions. Leonard Bernstein, in all his wisdom and experience provides us with a marvelous, efficient and engaging example of leadership attitude and I now remember him every morning before work.

On my way to São-Paulo for a series of meetings, courses with the Fundação Cabral and to run away from the snow starting to fall in Villars… Have a great week,


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9 Responses to ““A true Master does more with less: a powerful lesson from Leonard Bernstein””

  1. Well, Didier, Nick… again an enlighting and enourmously usefull message to answer to one of my anguishes regarding how to leader a mature and engaged team. Thank you so much! Um abraço.

  2. Really inspiring, Didier.
    I can’t help of wondering: how much work is behind this “doing less” and what kind of work? I assume it is not about standing there and just doing “little moves” but to get there in that mode requires “something” and is it preparation, reflection, observation,…? What makes Leonard Bernstein so effective…? Is it about something that belongs to him only or what is it that can be transferred to be as great in doing more with less? Not that I expect an answer…just sharing my reflections. Especially being a major “doer”!! That gives me hope! I was yesterday working on a document that it took to me 3 hours to prepare and I was wondering “why does it take so long?! why can’t you just trust that what you have done in the first version is good enough and let it go?!” so…very timely, for me, dialogue you opened here!
    Thank you! Rosanna

  3. Thank you Rosanna/Francisco,
    What impresses me in this clip of Bernstein is the enormous trust he has developed with the team (I am sure they had practiced quite a bit before getting there) and in himself.
    But what moves me most is the feeling that Leonard Bernstein is not “in it for himself, nor his own glory” but he is there for his people.
    I was fascinated quite some time ago when following Board members of a company on their roadshow: They all used the same words, had a very compelling story and their messages were aligned. However when I followed one of them once, a strange feeling caught: he was “technically” perfect and comparable to his colleagues. But something was missing. During drinks after his speech, one of the employees shared something that struck me: “He didn’t convince me as much as the others because he is in it for himself and his own career”. The penny dropped, THAT was what had bothered me unconsciously.
    So every morning before working for clients, Lennie Bernstein reminds me this useful lesson of humility and generosity: You are in it for your client not for yourself!
    Have a great day both and thanks for your comments

  4. Dear Didier,
    “#1 reason people leave their jobs: they don’t feel appreciated.” I read this recently in ‘How Full Is Your Bucket’ by Rath/Clifton and watching Berstein reminded me of this statement. You can see the genuine appreciation in his eyes for the player and he is truly enjoying the experience of conducting them.
    This blog generated a nice conversation with Graham Moss and myself this afternoon. In order to do more with less, you need to have complete trust in each other, and that comes from being an expert in what you do and working with each other many, many times. You can’t do more with less with a new team immediately.
    Also, we spoke about what would happen if something went wrong during this performance, what would have done? Slight look at the offending player to resolve the matter, or actually pick up the baton?

  5. Thank you for these excellent points Chris,
    Happy and flattered you take this into your conversations…
    Indeed this kind of mutual trust would be difficult without connection between those people. We may assume trust and competence but it probably took more than that for Leonard Bernstein to get to that level with this orchestra.
    A third possibility (throw an eyes, take baton back in hand being the two mentioned already) could be to trust the fact that the musicians are also at such a level of demanding competence of themselves that he could trust the “culprit” knows his mistake and keep on going without reaction…
    Have a great week

  6. Dear Didier, I can’t tell you how happy I am to read this post; it is directly related to an extraordinary experience I had the luck to enjoy something like fifteen years ago.
    I was then invited in Orange (F) to see Verdi’s opera “Aïda”. The show was great, but my emotions reached the highest possible point the night before when I was offered the rare privilege to watch the last rehearsal. The conductor was Georges Prêtre, one among the greatest. His charisma and talent spread all over, and the way trust and engagement between him and the orchestra was enlightening the one hour rehearsal was extraordinary. It was the first time I really understood what was a leader capable of directing a whole team, he and them sharing enormous respect, trust, commitment and simplicity (and talent, obviously). Him being capable to listen to the notes of each single musician – stopping the music to ask some violinist in the third row on the left to change this or that – was astonishing! No less astonishing was to witness how a director and an orchestra were so deeply connected and truly happy to do what they were doing.
    This memory comes to me quite often, and I always think that living such an experience should be compulsory to any MBA or you-name-it program or training. A single hour of this worth tens of others of big “blabla”…

    Have a great week in Brasil and thanks again for sharing this!
    😉 Dimitri

  7. Truly moving dear Dimitri,
    Great leaders know how to “lower their guard” and appropriately share something deeply personal. They “put some skin in the game”. Thank you very much.
    Just that is a huge pay back for my time on the blog! Have a great day

  8. It’s not just the connection between Bernstein and the players, or between the orchestra and the audience. There’s also a special ambiance that can be seen, marvelled at, enjoyed. Part of it was the fun that Bernstein was having. He was thoroughly into and thoroughly enjoying his and his orchestra’s performance. That experience of fun sometimes happens spontaneously, yet I imagine that for a conductor or a leader in any walk of life — preacher, teacher, coach, researcher, writer, singer, dancer … — it comes as a result of hours of dedicated practice, and in celebration of developing and using one’s talents to the utmost. As a teacher, I have taught and practiced the triad of making learning safe, fun, and purposeful. That’s what I saw in the Bernstein snippet; he made it fun (which is not the same thing as easy), safe (which does mean error free) and purposeful: paying honor to the composer, the musicians, and the audience. A wonderful lesson in leadership and partnership.

    Russ Hubbard, with grateful thanks to Chris Parker for bringing this gift to me.


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