December 3, 2012; Source: Innovation Excellence

We found this blog posting kind of interesting in its wanderings about the forest between a leader-obsessed society and an emergent sense that leaders often obstruct progress. Greg Satell starts where many of us do – scratching our heads about the fact that business leaders who turn in a mediocre or disastrous performance will often be compensated as well as those who perform excellently. He asks, “Is the small chance of getting an excellent one worth the high cost of the mediocre breed?”

Satell then goes on to point to a few endeavours that function on more of a flat level, which, to him, denotes the lack of a leader. He cites Morning Star, a $700 million-and-growing business that processes tomato products. He writes, “Nobody has a boss, anybody can spend company money and employees negotiate salaries and responsibilities with each other.” His second example is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York City, which has eschewed a conductor since 1972. Orpheus has won multiple Grammy awards. The group must build consensus over two tiers to choose the pieces they will play and how they will be interpreted.

The first tier is a core group that leads a particular ensemble. The second tier is the full orchestra. The first tier changes with the performance. Satell refers us to this article about Orpheus by Harvey Seifert. This example is particularly interesting in light of the recent upheavals at symphonies (which NPQ has noted here and here). Writes Seifert, “Orchestral musicians are a notoriously unhappy class of employees. Paul Judy reports that when Harvard Business School professor J. Richard Hackman studied job attitudes among people working in 13 different job groups, he discovered that symphony orchestra musicians ranked below prison guards in job satisfaction.”

But Seifert, in his article for Leader to Leader, does not believe that the unusual structure of Orpheus has left it leaderless. Instead, he writes:

“By removing the position of conductor from the organization, New York City-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has unleashed an incredible amount of leadership from its members. While the organization and its structures keep evolving, this Grammy-award-winning group continues to perform at the top of its game – a level of excellence that few other orchestras can approach. And, as long as Orpheus relies on its own members to guide and energize the group, it’s likely that this will be the case for many years to come.”

We would disagree with the designation of Orpheus or Anonymous (another example cited by Satell) as leaderless. In fact, they would seem to me to have more leaders, albeit sans the rigid processes or strong egos often associated with leadership roles. One of Satell’s concluding statements is drawn from this McKinsey article, which argues that, increasingly, “leaders with industrial age tendencies often obstruct progress. They pursue efficiency to the exclusion of passion, become overbearing and diminish performance.” –Ruth McCambridge