The CEO and the Opera

“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings”  -Ed Gardner

As many of my readers know, my 12 year old daughter, Stephanie, plays the violin.  Guiding and supporting her as she learns and develops as a musician and as a young woman is one of our prime responsibilities and joys as parents.  This week she has been given a very special opportunity to attend the rehearsals of the English National Opera’s forthcoming production of Richard Strauss’ Der RosenkavalierShe is the guest of maestro Edward Gardner, Principal Conductor of the ENO.

She is thrilled and terrified.  Sounds like most real learning situations, doesn’t it? Anyway, she is taking it very seriously, especially since she is missing school for this opportunity.  She has read and researched the life of Strauss, bought the original opera score, music and words, and is keeping a daily diary.

By now most executives and managers have heard, probably more than once, the analogy of an orchestra to a business organization and of the conductor to the leader of that organization.  Well, what Stephanie is discovering is that the conductor of an opera not only has to lead the orchestra, but is in charge of the entire cast and the production.  Oh, there are stage managers, a director of the opera, music coaches and set and costume staff, but the conductor is in charge of making it all work together to bring to life the ideas of the  composer and to deliver a performance that delights the audience. And it must perform like a fine Swiss watch.

How does he do it?  Here is where the analogy between the conductor of an opera and the CEO really gets interesting. It wouldn’t be possible unless the conductor understood and practiced a few key leadership principles.  Believe me, shouting and trying to use his position of “authority” is not the answer.  And he can’t just fire the ones he doesn’t like. But watching Ed Gardner work is a perfect study in the application of effective principles of organization and leadership.

First and foremost, he knows the opera, inside and out.  Not only the music score, but the stage production as well, down to the minutest detail. Where the lead must stand during a certain passage and where she must look on a certain note from the orchestra. And he understands the marriage of the music and the staging so intimately that he is able to see ahead, to anticipate what is coming in such as way as to guide the orchestra to the right crescendo or diminuendo with perfect timing in order to accentuate the performance on stage.

Business leadership principle number one: know your business inside and out.

Know your business model inside and out.  Know your people inside and out; their strengths and capabilities, their blind spots and weaknesses. Know your customers (read: audience) inside and out.  I am often amazed at how many CEOs and heads of organizations don’t really understand their business model (the score and the stage production) in minute detail.  Many CEOs and Division Heads believe they can still run an excellent company by managing annual budgets, cash flow and EBITDA. An antiquated philosophy still taught in most business schools, by the way. It would be a short opera season if that was the conductor’s approach.

And then there is the naive notion that leaders should rely on their senior executives and not interfere (micromanage) in how they run their respective departments or functions.  After all, that’s what the senior managers get paid for.

Not at all. The cellist doesn’t get paid just because he has mastered his instrument and can read the score.  And the head of the engineering department doesn’t get paid just because he is a good engineer and has read the AOP. They get paid to take their skills and talents and merge them with the other members of the organization and produce a spectacular end result.  It’s the opposite of how most businesses are run, where the focus for most members of the senior team is on meeting their functional budgets and objectives.  It would be a poor opera performance if the horn section just focused on the horn score and didn’t integrate with the rest of the orchestra and the stage production.  Those businesses that focus on the overall business outcomes and not just functional objectives tend to be the most successful.

That’s how a great opera production works.  And the conductor knows exactly what is happening now and about to happen at all times.  He knows the score! Does your CEO? Does she know what the engineering function is doing today and should be doing next week to deliver on the strategic objectives? Does the CEO know the score?

Business Leadership Principle Number Two:  Feedback, Feedback and more Feedback

I will write about leadership principle number two in my next blog, so stay tuned for more leadership insights courtesy of Stephanie, maestro Ed Gardner and the English National Opera.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to The CEO and the Opera

  1. Pingback: A Return to the Opera | John R Childress . . . rethinking leadership

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