James Levine’s Servant Leadership: “I Want to Always Be There for the Players” May 9 2011

Levine It’s often said that effective leadership is a lot like conducting an orchestra.  Last week, I heard an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with an actual leader who conducts an actual orchestra. The conductor is James Levine and he’s led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for forty years.  In his conversation with Terry Gross, I was moved by his perspective on leadership and felt compelled to share some of what I heard with you.

While he didn’t use the term, Levine is a servant leader. He is there to serve the people he leads.

Levine was a musical prodigy and started conducting the Met when he was 27 years old.  He formed his approach to conducting at an early age and decided as young man that he didn’t want to be a showy conductor who, as he said, practically mimes his interpretation of the music.  When he’s conducting a performance, he said:

"I want to be always there for the players, so when they check for something they want to remember — or for something that they need, or for something that is a technical help in the concert — they can see it.  But I want to do that in a way in which the audience is not getting a visual show instead of an aural one."

As part of the interview, Gross played a passage from a live performance of a particular aria and asked Levine how he got the orchestra to interpret and perform an especially moving chord. In answering her, he said he was going to disappoint her because he didn’t do anything. He said the orchestra did it themselves by responding to the expression of the vocal soloist.  “I didn’t play a single sound,” he told her and went on to explain that, “One of the most important things conductors don’t do is get in the way of the artistry of the musicians who are playing.”

By anyone’s measure, James Levine is an incredibly accomplished musician and conductor and, yet, as a leader he sees one of his most important functions as being a servant of his players and then getting out of the way. 

Perhaps you are already applying Levine’s approach to your own leadership role.  If you are, I would appreciate it if you’d share a few comments about how you learned to do this.  If you think you could do more in this regard, you’re likely not alone.  If that’s the case, what do you think your next best opportunity is to serve the people you lead?

3 Responses to “James Levine’s Servant Leadership: “I Want to Always Be There for the Players””

  1. Gayle Ely says:

    I believe it is Gandhi who said "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

    When it finally dawned on me that if I want my staff to be about high quality customer service, I needed to be a model for them. I needed to "be the service I want to see from them."

    When I made the mental shift to think of the staff as my internal customers, I began to model the type of service that I wanted the organization to provide for our external customers. This includes being attentive to and providing the staff with information and resources that enpower them to do their job efffectively.

    When the staff sees leaders acting in a manner consistent with what is being asked of them, it can make a world of difference.

  2. Wally Bock says:

    What a wonderful post, Scott! Symphony conductors work in a very different environment than most managers and understanding the differences helps us adapt the lessons we can learn from people like James Levine. Conductors do most of their work in rehearsal where they spend far more time than in performance. Lesson for managers: preparation can be the key to public success. And conductors are working with musicians who all have the same score and understand it. There is no debate about what the cello part is, it's in the score. Lesson for managers: never underestimate the power of a common, well-understood plan.

  3. Scott Eblin says:

    Hi Gayle and Wally –

    Can always count on the two of you for thoughtful comments. Thank you! Great story about your own servant leadership journey Gayle. Wally, love your point about preparation and the lack of debate around what the cello part is.

    You guys are the best.

    Cheers –


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