Leadership and your relationship with your staff

Last month was Berlioz month for members of the London Symphony Chorus.  This year the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus had a gap of notable proportions in the schedule (no prom concert this year, and a – men only – performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto to start the season).  Our first concert in the series, on Sunday 2nd November – a performance of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust – was my first concert since we sang Mark-Anthony Turnage’s At Sixes And Sevens at the Guildhall in July.
Many conductors – most conductors – make time for what’s called a “piano rehearsal” with the chorus.  This gives conductor and chorus the opportunity to prepare before the tutti rehearsals, in which everyone involved – conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus – comes together for rehearsal.
This time, our first rehearsal was a tutti rehearsal with chorus, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  I was glad of the extra time which I packed with any number of chores before making my way to the Barbican for our first tutti on Saturday afternoon.
Getting on the wrong side of the class
It’s not unusual for the first meeting between the Chorus and their fellow musicians to stimulate discussion about the conductor’s leadership style and this, in turn, can lead to a discussion about events outside the chorus.  Sometimes, these events bear no relation to what’s going on inside the concert hall;  instead, they reflect a universal concern to be led in ways which are comfortable, constructive and productive.
This time was no exception – on the way to rehearsal on the Sunday morning, I found myself in conversation with one of my colleagues, a teacher by profession, who described the experience that every teacher has from time to time, of getting on the wrong side of the class.
You know you’re on the wrong side of the class because pupils start to misbehave.  It’s a wearisome experience and difficult to come back from – as you’ll know if ever you’ve been there.  It’s particularly difficult because, often, the misbehaviour of your team can be hard to pin down or even to describe as misbehaviour.  Maybe your team members start to turn up on time – but never early.  Maybe they do a full day’s work – but don’t go the extra mile.  Maybe the number of doctor’s appointments goes up in your team.  Over the years, I’ve noticed how creative people can be in signalling to their leader that (s)he’s on the wrong side of the class.
In your heart of hearts, you know that you’ve lost the support of your team but there’s nothing you can easily criticise: from time to time, everyone needs to take time to go to the doctor, right?
It’s all about relationship
In the corporate environment in which I mostly work, very little emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between a leader and his or her staff.  Notions of what’s professional can get in the way of an open acknowledgement of the importance of relationship.  There’s a risk that, because the central role of relationship in the workplace is not acknowledged, it is, equally, not cultivated.
And yet, it is relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.
Members of your team will go the extra mile when they sense that they matter and their contribution is valued.  Insofar as you cut them some slack based on an understanding of their real needs or a recognition that everyone makes mistakes, they will cut you some slack, too.  If you cover their backs, they will cover your back.  The list goes on.
There are big questions involved if you want to cultivate a relationship with your staff which is both professional and fruitful for everyone involved.  Perhaps the mother of all questions is this:  are you ready to give up “being in control” for an approach based on mutual learning and respect?  I say this because research tends to show that the use of a command-and-control approach to leadership tends to undermine staff engagement and motivation.
At the same time, an approach based on mutual respect demands more of us in terms of relationship.  It requires of us that we put out what we want back – giving respect, for example, where we want respect, or investing in our staff insofar as we want them to give their heart as well as their professionalism to their work.  Sometimes it requires us to have faith in our staff and their potential even when they have yet to deliver to a standard we require.
And it requires dialogue – a willingness to listen as well as to talk.
Cultivating a fruitful professional relationship with your staff
When your style of leadership is well-established, it can be difficult to know whether or not you’re cultivating the kind of relationship that keeps you on the right side of your class.  For this reason, your first steps need to be about bringing into your awareness the nature of your relationship with the people you lead.  Here are three things for you to reflect on as a way to get started:
  • What are your aspirations for your relationship with your staff?  To what extent do you aspire to work in partnership with your staff based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect?  It may be that your relationship with your staff is not even on your leadership agenda.  Perhaps, though, you do want to have a relationship with members of your team and words like “trust” and “respect” feel comfortable to you – something you aspire to and enjoy when it happens;
  • What words would you use to describe the relationship you have with members of your team and with your team as a whole?  To what extent do these words suggest that your relationship is in line with your aspirations?  As a member of the Chorus, for example, I have worked with a wide range of conductors with diverse styles and I notice how clear my personal preferences are.  I want to know that I’m working with someone who has a real passion – love, even – for the music they are conducting and who works to high standards.  I prefer to work with someone who works with me rather than with someone who takes out his (or her) frustration on me or who is, even, simply absent.  For me, this implies relationship – a relationship between a conductor and those (s)he conducts.  Relationship, building over time, is the accumulated effect or outcome of shared experiences;
  • To what extent do you cultivate a relationship with your staff in which you receive feedback as well as giving it?  And what feedback do you get from your staff?  It’s easy as a leader to focus on the limitations of those you lead.  It takes more courage to say “how am I communicating such that they are behaving in this way?”  It takes both courage and maturity to ask members of your team about their experience – and to be able to listen to whatever answers they give you.
And Berlioz?
I still remember singing Berlioz’s Trojans for the first time in the early 1990s.  This, too, was with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Sir Colin Davis.  It was not my first experience of Berlioz (I had, after all, been singing the Shepherds’ Farewell since childhood) but it was my first experience on such a grand scale, and a truly magical one at that.
I did not know it but our conductor this time, Valery Gergiev, like Sir Colin, has been a life-long admirer of Berlioz.  On 10th October, writing in the Observer, Ed Vuillamy’s article was headed by the quote, “Berlioz inspired me long before I ever dreamed I would conduct.”
Our first concert, on Sunday 2nd November, was greeted warmly by the audience.  If the audience applause at the end of the concert was anything to go by, it was a performance of considerable aplomb.  For me, there was a vigour in the performance which was lacking at rehearsal (or perhaps – as one chorus member remarked wryly – we had friends in the audience).
Some critics were not complimentary.  Sebastian Scotney, for example, writing for The Arts Desk, use the word “perfunctory” in the course of his review and Mark Valencia, writing for What’s On Stage, highlighted something of which members of the chorus were only too painfully aware – the absence of our much-loved Sir Colin Davis.  He said of the chorus:
Most disappointing of all was the London Symphony Chorus, normally a tower of strength.  Their succession of soldiers, students, peasants, gnomes, sylphs, demons and ‘the damned’ were under-characterised and apparently under-rehearsed.  In Part Two the male drinkers seemed to frequent a very sober tavern and would have been more at home at a game of skittles than an orgy, while in Part Four the ladies of the Chorus (to the mirth of some sitting behind me) diligently checked their copies before delivering a single, hellbound scream.
Not every critic agreed.  Colin Anderson,writing for Classical Source, said (of the second performance, on Thursday 7thNovember):
It was the London Symphony Chorus that in many ways stole the show with focussed and unanimous singing that survived every microscopic detail that Gergiev (and Simon Halsey, chorus director) extracted from it.  Distinctions between soldiers, students, peasants and others may not have been that obvious, but the preparation and delivery was top class.
By the time chorus members finished five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation and Romeo and Juliet, critics were fulsome in their praise.  Nicolas Grienenberger, writing forClassiqueNews.com, said of the ensemble:
On ne peut que saluer l’engagement total du chef, attentif à tous les plans sonores, variant ici une dynamique, là un vibrato, et entraînant tous les musiciens vers une palette de nuances proprement stupéfiante, leur faisant oser des pianissimi impalpables à la limite de l’inaudible, forçant ainsi l’assistance au silence le plus absolu, et demandant à l’ensemble des spectateurs un présent devenu rarissime : leur écoute. Prodigieux également, le chœur du London Symphony Orchestra, d’une cohésion sonore et d’une clarté dans la diction exceptionnelles, d’une délicatesse dans le murmure qui n’a d’égale que l’intensité de leur éclat. A leurs côtés, les jeunes chanteurs formant les Guildhall Singers ne sont pas en reste, commentant l’action d’une superbe pâte sonore au phrasé élégant.
You don’t need to speak French to notice such words as “délicatesse” and “élégant”!
I was not at these subsequent performances and can only wonder; do these diverse critiques reflect the different tastes of the critics or did the quality of performance build over two weeks, in which the chorus sang five performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet?  I don’t know.
I do, though, believe that – in business as much as in the concert hall – it takes time to build a relationship with your colleagues and, equally, with the work you are doing.  In short, whatever your work environment, it takes time to sing your way into the totality of the piece. 

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