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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

School Leadership and the Orpheus Process

In 1972, a young cellist by the name of Julian Fifer, along with a small group of like-minded musicians, came together to create an orchestra without a conductor. Almost fifty years later, the Orpheus Orchestra continues not only to be critically acclaimed as a musical phenomenon but has also inspired companies and organizations across the world to rethink traditional models of leadership.

The so-called Orpheus Process is rooted in the idea that people engaged in complex tasks will often do better without someone at the front telling them what to do and how to act. Yet, as Harvey Seifter, former Executive Director of Orpheus, writes:

“In most orchestras, the conductor directly supervises each musician; the conductor not only decides what music will be played but how it will be played as well. There is little room for the opinions or suggestions of the musicians themselves; such input is rarely solicited and even less often welcomed.”

By contrast, the Orpheus process is one “that invites every member of the orchestra to participate in leadership positions, either leading the group in rehearsal and performance as concertmaster or by leading one of the orchestra's many different formal or informal teams. This system is extremely flexible - musicians freely move in and out of positions of leadership - and it can be used to quickly adapt to changing conditions in the marketplace or within the group itself.”

A black and white photograph of two musicians playing

In this way, the Orpheus process is one in which everyone is deeply involved, determining together through creative dialogue how the music should be played and demanding unparalleled personal engagement throughout every performance. As they state on their website: “In Orpheus there’s no single conductor who owns the creativity and leadership. Every single musician is fully empowered. Everyone owns the artistic vision Everyone rotates in and out of roles. Everyone is a leader all the time. Rather than following one person’s direction, the musicians tune into and respond to each other in the moment as they are playing.”

Speaking of tuning into and responding to each other, I wonder how many of us have found ourselves sitting in school leadership meetings and tuning out too quickly or failing to respond to one other when it’s not our turn to “play”? I certainly have to admit to moments of sitting back and allowing others to take centre stage, satisfied that our “conductor” at the front has everything under control.

For more than a year now, the Advancement team at the International School of Brussels has embarked on a quest to reshape itself around a model of decentralized leadership. Drawing on principles of holacracy and lessons from self-managed teams, we’ve travelled some distance and learned some important lessons along the way. We’ve also made a few mistakes and had to retrace our steps and remind ourselves where we are trying to get to as a team. The more I read about the Orpheus Process, however, the more it brings what we are actually trying to do into sharper relief.

In his book, Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra, Harvey Seifter outlines 8 principles of Orpheus Leadership.

  1. Put power into the hands of people doing the work.

  2. Encourage individual responsibility for product and quality.

  3. Create clarity of roles.

  4. Foster horizontal teamwork.

  5. Share and rotate leadership.

  6. Learn to listen, learn to talk.

  7. Seek consensus (and build creative systems that favor consensus).

  8. Dedicate passionately to your mission.

What I find particularly compelling about this list of principles is the fact that, try as we might, it is almost impossible to adopt some of them and put the others to one side. We simply cannot speak of empowering those around us without also creating the systems or structures for horizontal teams can flourish. Likewise, we cannot encourage individual responsibility for the quality of what we do in our school without also giving real clarity about who does what.

Despite what you might be thinking, I am not actually going to conclude that schools or even Advancement teams should abandon their “conductors”. I am wondering, though - as Itay Talgam once famously explained in a TED talk on Leading like the Great Conductors - that the true art of leadership is reaching that point of “doing without doing”. And then standing back, lowering the baton, and taking a moment to enjoy the music.


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