Sunday, February 19, 2012

the art of getting out of the way

Every year the company my husband works for takes all their employees and spouses on an annual conference. So I get to go along, help behind the scenes, and attend sessions where well-known leaders, researchers, and entrepreneurs from all over the world teach on their area of business expertise. I don't usually expect to get much out of the sessions. I'm not a business person, and most of the time business jargon irritates me.

This year, though, at the last session on the last day, they managed to inspire me.

We came back from a break to see the local philharmonic orchestra arranged on the stage in the center of the conference room. The conductor, with a nice fluffy head of gray hair, stepped to the podium and led the orchestra in the first movement of a piece. Then he stopped and addressed the audience. He drew parallels between leading an organization and leading an orchestra. He showed examples of bad conducting--bad leadership--where the orchestra played out-of-sync, or played without luster, or played too stiffly.

The message: get out of your own way.

It's not a perfect analogy, but a good conductor, a good leader, a good artist, gets out of his or her own way. Out of the way of the musicians, employees, characters, images. Let them make mistakes. Let them be cumbersome at times. Let them rise through autonomy to their own glory.

I can't impose my ideas on my stories, or I will stifle them. A conductor can't dictate every mood and phrase of the orchestra sections, or the musicians will lose the life they bring to the piece. A manager can't have her finger in every pot or she'll exhaust herself and keep her employees from becoming self-motivated. I need to let my characters teach me who they are, I need to let the images come to mean what they mean rather than what I think they should mean. A good conductor trusts his musicians, treats them as professionals, and works in a symbiotic way with them. Get the ego out of the way and let the process become collaborative.

At the end, the conductor picked a man from the audience and invited this admittedly non-musical businessman to the podium. The man took the baton, and, guided by the conductor's own hand, led the orchestra through the contemplative, sweet second movement--conducting the right way. Whenever the camera projected the man's face on the big screens, a collection of nervous giggles rose from the audience. Because right there in plain sight was the stricken awe of someone experiencing something beautiful. His face--eyes half-closed, lips parted, head slightly tilted--displayed the flickerings of tenderness, humility, transcendence, joy, that many of us only allow ourselves to feel privately when listening to music or watching the sunrise or standing at the edge of a canyon. As soon as he heard the murmurs, he straightened his face into a more professional composition. But before long, he lost himself in the music until the camera cut to him again.

When they finished the movement, the conductor gave the man the mic and asked him to describe the experience. I forget exactly what he said, but he was clearly trying hard to come up with the right words for such an inexpressible moment, probably unprecedented in his life. He finally said something about the connection he felt with the musicians, the sense of creating something together that was greater than the sum of them. He used the word "poetic."

It seems the business world is waking up to the fact that there's an artist inside us all. And the best thing to do is get out of the way, trust the process, and let the music rise.


  1. "Know that there is often hidden in us a dormant poet, always young and alive." DeMusset