Blog: Music and management

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Music and management

What can organizations learn from orchestras.
Music and management

Leaders have often been compared to chess grandmasters. This is a particularly inadequate analogy and reflects the same mindset that makes some leaders treat their people as pawns. Unlike real people, even the most powerful piece on a chessboard, the queen, never questions or subverts an order, much less behave any differently depending on how gently or roughly she is handled.

It would be far more illuminating and useful to compare organizational leaders to conductors of classical music orchestras. They are far better models of getting diverse but highly talented people to work in teams while giving each of them ample scope to display their individual capabilities. Like conductors perform works composed by others, most corporate CEOs also interpret, finesse and execute the vision or breakthrough innovation of a founding entrepreneur or inventor. Of course, just as some composers conduct their own creations (for a while, at least), there are inventors who shepherd their inventions to commercial success. Entrepreneurs, by definition, found and run businesses for varying lengths of time. However, not only is the proportion of creators-cum-executors (at least on the large scale) small in both music and business, there is no invariant correlation between the excellence achieved in creation and execution. 

This column, however, deals only indirectly with the leadership conductors provide to orchestras. Our focus is on the players themselves and what we can learn from the kind of attitudes, relationships and spirit that makes for great orchestral ensembles.

DOSTI ho to Aisi

Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony is often called the “Symphony of a Thousand” because it requires a large number of instrumental players and vocalists (though it is normally performed with far fewer than a thousand). No conductor could manage such a huge number of musicians unless the players themselves had the training, skill and temperament to work in unison, with one small team taking support from the rest and being prominent at one time while another takes pride of place later and so on.

Musical abilities are not our concern in this column but corporates can certainly learn from the complex piece of coordination which brings an initial creator’s vision to fruition with minimal resort to command and control. I would like to summarize the delicately balanced and somewhat contradictory characteristics needed to achieve such a miracle as Disciplined Orchestra-Style Teamwork & Innovation or DOSTI. Let’s parse these descriptors a bit.

Disciplined Orchestra-Style Teamwork & Innovation or DOSTI requires light-touch leaders who foster self-discipline, creative ideation and voluntary teamwork among employees, the way great conductors do

An orchestra is not free to play whatever enters each player’s head. There is a score that the player has to follow and interpret as demanded by the conductor (perhaps after discussion). The order that is the outcome of such discipline is, of course, at the heart of the beauty of classical music and of much else. As Pearl S Buck wrote: "Order is the shape upon which beauty depends." The discipline of the orchestra is very different from the regimented discipline imposed on a marching squad (or a traditional mass-production line). Players in an orchestra constantly need to modulate their performances based on what other players are doing and respond in a far more nuanced fashion to the conductor’s cues than a squadsman does to the orders barked at him.

An even more delicate balance has to be struck by an orchestral player between group and individual performance. There is no question that an orchestra’s worth stands or falls as a whole, regardless of how well an individual plays. "In direct opposition to what it means to be a good soloist, orchestra members desire with all their hearts to create 'one sound' with their fellow musicians… Of course, there are times where you may play an independent line of music or two, or [be] given the honor of showcasing as a soloist. For the most part, however, orchestra members strive to blend their instrument's sound … the effect being that multiple instruments are played together as a single, unified sound."5 At the same time, there is no gainsaying the extraordinary skill and unique interpretation expected from individual players. Obviously, this innovation has to be acceptable to the conductor and limited to their own instrumental domains. An oboe player suddenly playing the French horn’s part because s/he thought of a way of doing it better would be as ridiculous as a CFO telling a CHRO how to swat down unions (and that, of course, never happens!).

Cultural challenges

Having brought our argument to this point without much controversy (except in the minds of CFOs and, anyway, what are you doing reading this journal?) let’s stir up things a bit by examining why organizations in India find it a challenge to build DOSTI-friendly cultures. Or, to put it another way, why are we orchestrally challenged? It is certainly not my contention that we Indians are unmusical. But our culture doesn’t lend itself naturally to the blend of discipline, cooperation and structured creativity that orchestras demand. As Aakar Patel put it in a recent column: "Polyphonic harmony was a desired effect, celebrating an activity only humans are capable of doing and enjoying: harmonious group activity… However I confess I do not see any aspect of Indian culture that promotes, reinforces and celebrates harmony. Indeed the answers to why we Indians struggle with group activity – traffic, football, parliamentary debate, war and conquest – things requiring interaction in concert with other humans, requiring harmony, may be found right here."6 There are many explanations offered for our DOSTI resistance. As explained in an earlier column7, Evolutionary Psychology provides us with some interesting leads into the origins of our different attitudes to teamwork, leadership and, consequently, the way we play music as well as organize ourselves for other large-scale projects. On the face of it, DOSTI should flourish in geographies like India which fall in "ecological regions characterized by higher prevalence of infectious diseases, [where] human cultures are characterized by greater collectivism."8 However, as defined in these studies, "collectivists make sharp distinctions between coalitional in-groups and out-groups, … [and] collectivism is characterized by a strong value placed on tradition and conformity".8 Since modern organizations are invariably mixtures of in and out groups and need continual team-based innovation, our collectivist inheritance gives us an evolutionarily imprinted aversion to DOSTI. Another interesting consequence of high pathogen densities in tropical regions is the receptivity to authoritarianism by societies originating in those geographies.9 This desire for dominant leaders may also have a social origin. According to Prof R K Gupta "… Indians are submissive, more obedient to seniors, more dependent on others as well as fearful of people in positions of power. Sociologists have related this hierarchical orientation to the hierarchical structure of the caste system as well as the emotional distance maintained by the father from his children."10 Both these predispositions tend to push Indians to the extreme ends of three continuums, preventing us from attaining the synthesis that lies in the middle and is essential for orchestral and organizational excellence.  

Let’s take, to start with, the way most of us in India like to be led. The 'sultanism'11 that we frequently prefer takes us to one end of the scale: not all of us would pass Lyndon Johnson’s Macy window loyalty test12 but many would come pretty close to doing so! According to a recent Pew report: "Support for autocratic rule is higher in India than in any other nation surveyed."13 The opposite extreme we otherwise land into is relative anarchy where, in the absence of a dominating leader, we pull each other down and squabble amongst ourselves (functions, business units, departments, sections, you name it) till the next red queen emerges. Even when we dance, it takes a 110-decibel drum beat to impart a modicum of rhythm to our movements. It is not clear whether we don’t generate enough conductor-style leaders (who guide organizations by subtle signs while permitting freedom for the performers to give of their best) or whether we turn such leaders into more autocratic selves by the strongman demands we make on them. The fact remains that Level 5 leaders,14 who are particularly needed by new generation tech enterprises, are in very short supply here. 

The virtuoso of Indian classical music is a self-contained marvel. S/he is composer, conductor and player rolled into one. In this model, there is no transmission loss between one role and the others. This efficiency advantage, however, is far outweighed by the unlikelihood of one person commanding the same virtuosic heights in three or more distinct disciplines. As mentioned earlier, many (if not most) composers of Western classical music have conducted or played their own work. But it wouldn’t have mattered if they hadn’t. A moving story from the life of Beethoven makes this point: "Three years before Ludwig van Beethoven shook his great fist at the thunder & lightning raging outside his window and fell back dead on his bed, his Ninth (last) Symphony was given its first performance in Vienna. Beethoven, a homely, dumpy, shaggy-headed little figure, stood in the orchestra, eyes fixed on his score, awkwardly beating time. He was not the official conductor. The players had been instructed to pay him no attention. He was so deaf by that time that he could hear nothing of the great, surging music called for by the pinny, almost illegible little notes he had made. He did not sense the applause which came afterward until one of the soloists, a Fraulein Caroline Unger, turned him around so that his eyes could take it in. The music passed into the background then. The demonstration took a sudden, emotional turn as the people started shouting, beating their palms together still harder in an effort to assure the fierce-looking little man of their sympathy, their appreciation."15 Beethoven went on to compose some of his most path-breaking string quartets in the remaining years of his life when he could neither conduct, perform or even hear them. To transpose to an organizational context, when an initial vision has to be taken forward and executed for an indefinite period of time by different generations of successors, only the specialization model followed by Western orchestral music fits. At the other end of the self-sufficient all-in-one extreme of the Indian musician is the totally routinized role into which the less gifted of us fall. Even when more creative spirits rise above this routine, they do not generally move to the specialized expertise model which is true synthesis but resort to a self-sufficient 'Jugaad' version. That is all very well for a temporary fix but, as we shall see in more detail later, it cannot be the path to long term organizational progress. 

At the heart of DOSTI is, of course, the manner in which we operate as collectives. Teamwork with diverse colleagues is very different from thinking collectively about our sub-group. "In an interesting conceptualization, psychoanalyst Alan Roland … demonstrates … the subtle and important differences between the familial orientation of Indians and Japanese. According to him while a Japanese seamlessly extends his familial orientation to his workgroup and the employing organization, an Indian’s in-group remains confined to his extended family and the caste community. This … has very challenging consequences for effective teamwork in organizations located in India."10 Loyalty to an in-group provided a survival advantage in pre-historic and, to an extent, even in pre-industrial societies. Modern organizations can’t afford to work on this basis. Being hostile to (or even ignoring) 'the other' significantly diminishes the overall effectiveness of any group. When they are themselves reduced to a minority within their workgroup, Indians can become even more clannish and distant from those group goals that demand personal effort but may not result in individualized credit. This type of behavior gives rise to the belief many “expats” nurse that Indians are great individually but struggle in team tasks.

Nice-to-have for others are must-haves for us

It would be ridiculous to conclude that, because of the cultural overhang we have described, Indian companies are unable to build high-performance teams and organizations. Those that have done so, however, have mastered some or all of the remedial measures described in this section. A few that haven’t yet done so may still be successful based on the power of their business models and favorable circumstances but they are like sailing ships tacking against strong cultural headwinds. As they master DOSTI and make it a source of strategic competitive advantage, their pace of progress and sustainable growth will be substantially quickened. Here are the building blocks of lasting DOSTI.

DOSTI requires light-touch leaders who foster self-discipline, creative ideation and voluntary teamwork among employees, the way great conductors do. There are, of course, authoritarian conductors16 but, while they may sparkle in public performances, they do not build the spirit that characterizes the great orchestras of the world. This is true also for political and business leadership as evidenced by Bill Gates’ recommendation of Archie Brown’s 'The Myth of the Strong Leader'17: "Brown’s core argument is exactly what his title suggests: despite a worldwide fixation on strength as a positive quality, strong leaders – those who concentrate power and decision-making in their own hands – are not necessarily good leaders. On the contrary, Brown argues that the leaders who make the biggest difference in office, and change millions of lives for the better, are the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate – the ones who recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers… Through my work in the business world and at the foundation, I’ve seen firsthand how ineffective and even dangerous it can be when leaders make decisions alone – and how much good we can do when we work together. Good leaders will challenge themselves, bring in fresh thinking and expert advice, and not only invite but seriously consider opposing viewpoints."18 Specifically in the business context and many years before Brown, Jim Collins explained the profile of such leaders perfectly: "… Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will… [and] set up their successors for even greater success in the next generation… [They] display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated…. Level 5 leaders look out the window to attribute success to other factors than themselves.  When things go poorly, however, they look in the mirror and blame themselves, taking full responsibility."14 The Indian predilection for 'sultans' demands the Level 5 antidote more than most Western cultures. For leaders who are already in the system, coaching can help to an extent. There are even programs where leaders can step into a conductor’s shoes. The referenced write-up elaborates on what the leader of a business can learn from leading an orchestra.19 But these interventions can rarely affect the transformation in leadership styles that are necessary for autocratic leaders to become conductor-like and, hence, selection remains vitally important.

As important as the leaders we appoint are the other people choices we make and how we meld teams into alloys that far exceed the properties of their elemental parts

As important as the leaders we appoint are the other people choices we make and how we meld teams into alloys that far exceed the properties of their elemental parts. There are many reasons for diversified recruitment but one of the strongest ones is that it is the only way we get an opportunity to bring 'the other' (of a variety of origins, educations, genders, orientations and beliefs) into each workgroup and make the teamwork together in harmony while delivering high quality and output. The reason why affirmative action only at the time of recruitment (whether it is job reservations or RTE places in schools) frequently fails miserably is that the “out group” is thrown into the deep end of the pool, sometimes with dominant group swimmers splashing water into their faces and certainly not coming to their rescue when they are struggling to stay afloat. Our onboarding and teaming processes are mostly infructuous in this regard because they work with the joining cohort or the people nominated for the teambuilding programme rather than the teams that will work together. The reason military teams work better regardless of their initial origins is that they go through their baptisms of (training or real) fire in the same groups that will operate and fight together later. Teddy Roosevelt adopted this method to meld the disparate volunteers to the Rough Riders into a united team. "To stimulate the 'fellow feeling' he believed essential to the success of the mission he deliberately arranged tents at the training ground … in such a manner that cowboys and wranglers slept side by side with the scions of financiers. He … brought easterners and westerners together in the daily chores of laundry and digging and filling in latrines. Eventually, a common denominator emerged throughout the entire regiment – a leveling of money, social status, and education under the aegis of teamwork."20 This simple change, of making the working group the learning group, and putting them through really tough situations (that demand contributions from each person in the team to pull through) will go a considerable way to overcoming the restrictive collectivism that prevents many Indian corporates from unleashing the power of universal cooperation in the interest of the organizational purpose.

Finally, we come to the way we gain the advantages of innovation. Much praise has been lavished on the Indian penchant for 'Jugaad'21 and this is justified – up to a point. When it pervades the entire working culture of an organization and becomes an alternative to standard operating procedures it can lead to inconsistent quality, general sloppiness and great risks to safety.22 We need Counter-Jugaadi Inventiveness to provide a sustainable and reliable stream of fresh ideas. One such disciplined approach to innovation comes through the TQM movement and Kaizen. Industry in India had made great progress in universalizing this culture and its attendant techniques till some organizations found that the 'Jugaad' of cutting costs through contractualization was much easier than through Kaizen and continuous quality and productivity improvements. If we resurrect this movement, we shall get the double benefits of diverse teams working together for organizational goals along with innovation flowing in the directions where it is most needed. 

Much praise has been lavished on the Indian penchant for 'Jugaad' and this is justified - up to a point. When it pervades the entire working culture of an organization and becomes an alternative to standard operating procedures it can lead to inconsistent quality and great risks to safety

DOSTI with virtuosos

Does all this mean that organizations with a DOSTI culture have no place for individual brilliance? Far from it. Exceptional contributors operating in such environments can develop and display their genius to the full, assured that there will be a team to support and complement them rather than being constantly in conflict with equally ambitious crabs waiting to pull them down. 

To take the orchestral parallel again, virtuosos who play concertos have world-wide recognition. But though these performers occupy center-stage, they are neither self-contained nor self-sufficient. Quite apart from the form imposed by the distinctly antecedent composer, there is the rest of the orchestra (under the conductor’s tutelage) with whom the virtuoso has to team and play in real-time to display fully his or her genius. It is this combination of iridescent individual performances embedded in an amalgam of coordinated team contributions that make for truly valuable modern organizations. Indian enterprises perhaps stand to benefit the most 'From the New World'23 of diamantine-studded DOSTI. 

We need Counter-Jugaadi Inventiveness to provide a sustainable and reliable stream of fresh ideas



  1. Nelson Vinod Moses, Bosses must take care of employee mental health, The Mint, 6 September 2018.
  2. Amlan Mishra, How Do Zomato, Other Apps Actually Treat Their ‘Informal’ Workers?, The Quint, 20 August 2019.
  3. Visty Banaji, The Golden Lotus under India’s software deities, People Matters, 17th November 2016. 
  4. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, July 2008.
  5. String Ovation Team, What Qualities Make For A Desirable Orchestra Member, Conolly String Ovation, 12 April 2018.
  6. Aakar Patel, For discordant India, Notre Dame’s ‘frozen music’ offers a lesson in harmony, Times of India, 21 April 2019.
  7. Visty Banaji, (R)evolutionary Thinking- Organizational puzzles that Evolutionary Psychology can solve, People Matters, 24th August 2018. 
  8. Corey L Fincher, Randy Thornhill, Damian R Murray and Mark Schaller, Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism,
  9. Damian R Murray, Mark Schaller and Peter Suedfeld, Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism, PLOS ONE, 1 May 2013, Volume 8, Issue 5.
  10. R K Gupta, Prospects of Effective Teamwork in India: Some Cautionary Conjectures from a Cross-Cultural Perspective, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 38, No. 2, October 2002.
  11. According to The SAGE Encyclopedia of Political Behavior: "Sultanism is a type of autocratic regime in which political power is concentrated in the hands of the ruler and is unbound by political and legal rules… The regime elicits loyalty through favoritism toward its supporters, reprisals against its opponents, and the repression of civil society."
  12. Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said: "I want loyalty! I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses." David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, Ballantine Books, 1993.
  13. Bruce Stokes, Dorothy Manevetch and Hanyu, Chwe, The state of Indian democracy, Pew research Center, 15 November 2017.
  14. Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't, Harper Business, 2001.
  15. Lily Rothman, Here's What Beethoven Did When He Lost His Hearing, TIME, extract from 9 May 1932 issue quoted in issue of 17 December 2015.
  16. Josep Gustems Carnicer, Diego Calderón Garrido and Salvador Oriola Requena, Music and Leadership: the Role of the Conductor, International Journal of Music and Performing Arts, June 2015, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 84-88.
  17. Archie Brown, The Myth of the Strong Leader, Penguin Random House; Latest edition: April 2015.
  18. Bill Gates, What Makes a Great Leader?, Gatesnotes – The blog of Bill Gates, 5 December 2016.
  19. Mark E Powell and Jonathan Gifford, Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset, Organizational Aesthetics: Vol. 5: Issue 1, 131-149, 2016.
  20. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Penguin UK, 2019.
  21. Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, Wiley 2012.
  22. Dean Nelson, India's oldest hack may be its biggest obstacle on the road to world power, Economic Times, 8 July 2018.
  23. Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor is also called, "From the New World"
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