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

Posted 05.09.2011

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?