Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor

Building a TEDx Talk (Part 2)

In a previous post, I talked about the emotional experience of putting a TEDxHouston talk together. As I mentioned, this was one of the tougher public speaking events I ever did, but as I look back on it a few months removed, I'm happy with it - overall. Granted, there are a million things I wish I had said differently or clarified better, so here goes that. [youtube=]

There is no question that many of my leadership ideas have a variety of influences - Maestros Masur and William Henry Curry who are some of the most inspirational people I have ever seen, John Nelson who is extremely detailed and preparation oriented, Mike Votta who is utterly honest and straightforward in his approach to an ensemble, and Coach K whose organization and intensity have been huge influences. (I have read every one of Coach K's books on leadership - shocking, I know. I highly recommend them).

I think what binds each of the above people together is how much they trust the people they work with. They understand that each person has a responsibility for accomplishing their portion of the overall team's goal, and they make sure that everyone knows what is expected of them. I think every one of my leadership "gurus" would agree that a great leader finds ways to put people in the best position for them to be able to succeed. I've always admired leaders who inspire and allow the people around them to do their jobs without micromanaging. I think it allows for people to do their best work. No leader wants to be a tyrant or a dictator. (I hope that aspect comes through in my TEDx talk).

That is always my goal as an Artistic Director and as a conductor. It does, of course, demand that the people working with you are inspired and come to the table with energy, excitement, and proficiency at their task or that you are able to equip them with each of those three things. My point in the TEDx talk, however, was to make the point that you will need to equip yourself to use a variety of leadership styles depending on what the situation demands. Communication determines quite a bit of it. If a team has the inability to communicate well - and this lack of communication can be for a variety of reasons, it is incumbent on the leader to figure out how to get them directed in the same direction and get the goal accomplished. We see this at times in sports when a great player takes a game over, puts a team on his/her back, and leads them to victory because the rest of the team isn't necessarily hitting on all cylinders.

This definitely takes a great deal of effort from the player who takes the game over - much as with a leader who decides to micromanage and do everything themselves. I don't believe this style of leadership is sustainable, but at times it is necessary. Then there are times when a team works like a well oiled machine and is hitting on all cylinders because they are all pointed in the right direction, get sufficient feedback from their fellow team members, and can easily communicate as the situation changes. It is times like that when it is fun to be a leader. Of course, more often than not, you are somewhere between the two extremes. We see this often in the conducting world. There are times you can put your hands down and just listen to the orchestra because they are playing beautifully, and you really can't add any more. There are times, though, when you are trying to show every single detail because the stage does not allow them to hear each other, you were not given enough rehearsal time, or it's incumbent on you to find ways to energize them.

The big challenge for us as conductors is knowing when we can let go and when to do more. The great ones - Masur, Kleiber, Abbado, Rattle, Mehta, etc. - know exactly when and how to go about it. Orchestra musicians appreciate the responsibility of being allowed to do their job and the expectation that they must bring their intensity and their own spirit to the show. This is what we aspire to, but it's important to have that leadership bag of tricks we can go to to adjust as needed by the team.