Lessons From The Arts: Providing Direction To Experts

I neglected to note who had posted it on Twitter, but an article in The Economist about what the arts can teach business came across my feed today.

One of the first examples was an exercise used by a professor at the Saïd Business School at Oxford which asked MBA students to try their hand at conducting a choir.

The first to take the challenge was a rather self-confident young man from America. It didn’t take long for him to go wrong. His most obvious mistake was to start conducting without asking the singers how they would like to be directed, though they had the expertise and he was a complete tyro.

…The session, organised by Pegram Harrison, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship, cleverly allowed the students to absorb some important leadership lessons. For example, leaders should listen to their teams, especially when their colleagues have specialist knowledge. All they may need to do, as conductors, is set the pace and then step back and let the group govern itself.

It was noticeable, too, that the choir managed fairly well even if the conductors were just waving their batons in an indeterminate fashion. The lesson there, Mr Harrison said, was that leaders can only do so much damage—provided they do not attempt to control every step of the process. The whole exercise illustrated it is possible for a lesson to be instructive and entertaining at once.

While these lessons seemed to be laid on with a heavy hand, I couldn’t help think back to the video I posted yesterday which showed the first opera rehearsal with the singers and orchestra together.

There, the discussion of the role of the conductor and prompter was all about helping the artists to maintain pacing and remind them where they were in the process. That is pretty much what the passage I cited above discussed, so heavy handed or not, the use of a music ensemble to illustrate groups can be productive if left to govern themselves is valid.

I have come across the idea that performing arts groups can be used as examples of teams joining together to execute complex projects before. However, there was an example of the value of acting lessons I had never come across or considered:

But Mr Walker-Wise says that middle managers are often delivering words that are not their own (because they were devised by head office) or trying to inspire staff to meet an objective that was set by someone else. “The lesson from acting is how do I connect to this message without betraying my own personality,” he argues.

I am not sure that I would want acting to be valued for helping people to become better liars, but there are definitely times when we all need to learn to subsume our personal feelings in order organize others to accomplish a task. The military does this by instilling a sense of discipline and obedience, but their methods are not ones the general public will easily accept. Acting and other skills derived from performance training present an alternative method to get people working together as teams.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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