A silhouette of Itay Talgam as he conducts the orchestra. A silhouette of Itay Talgam as he conducts the orchestra. A silhouette of Itay Talgam as he conducts the orchestra. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Advice on being an effective leader, from a world-famous maestro

How a symphony conductor goes from the orchestra hall to the boardroom. (Hint: It has a lot to do with listening.)

The key to being a successful leader can be found at the end of a baton. Not the kind you twirl, but a musical one, held by a conductor directing his orchestra.

The trick, though, is all in the grip. Hold it too tightly, and you are in danger of being so rigid no one can master the musical score. But loosen your grip, and then you have the chance to find yourself at the helm of a new and exciting symphony – one which the maestro and his musicians compose together.

Maestro Itay Talgam – who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel – has given several TED Talks about leadership that have been viewed nearly 3 million times. Talgam debuted as an international conductor in 1987, when he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to appear in a special concert with the Orchestre de Paris. He's directed such groups as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and was the first Israeli to conduct Russia's St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Leipzig Opera in Germany.

Itay Talgam received a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.Itay Talgam received a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Photo: Michal Kleinberg)

But what stuck with Talgam most is the leadership lessons he learned at the hands of Bernstein, his mentor and one of history’s greatest conductors. Whether performing for children on TV or adult audiences at live symphonies, Talgam believes Bernstein’s communication style spoke to each one of the groups for which he created music.

Bernstein knew that the secret to leadership was to listen to the people around you. And Talgam has incorporated that style himself. He now travels the world conducting in a new arena, teaching managers and their employees how to be better listeners.

“Bernstein could be intimate with each one of his listeners,” Talgam told From The Grapevine when we reached him at his home in Israel. "And that’s very rare because he could open a space for each one to have a personal, authentic moment of creation by listening.”

Those spaces, or “gaps,” as Talgam refers to them in his 2015 book, "The Ignorant Maestro," are no more than the mistakes and miscommunications that occur around us. Talgam said he wrote the book to explore “the diverse leadership of six of the world’s greatest maestros, from the legendary Toscanini and the controversial Von Karajan to the beloved Leonard Bernstein."

“Gaps can be in many areas of life,” Talgam explained. They may be technical, like when a business discovers a process works much better than they expected. Or they may be that moment when two people understand the same word differently.

“All those moments where clarity is missing,” Talgam said, “often these are embarrassing moments.” Most people think these moments need to go, to be swept away with a flick of the wrist. But Talgam disagrees. “These are the gaps that can give you understanding, often in a more productive way than you’re used to,” he said.

Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle" show focuses on the leadership style of a young maestro played by Gael García Bernal (far left).Amazon's "Mozart in the Jungle" show focuses on the leadership style of a young maestro played by Gael García Bernal (far left). (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Instead of focusing on being a keynote speaker, which involves “setting the agenda for other people by telling them what to do,” Talgam believes leaders should aim to be “more of a keynote listener.” This technique is what helps great leaders like Steve Jobs “tie people to the process so they understand so well that they make fantastic products together.” If you follow that idea through, from design inception to finished product, he believes even customers can feel like they’re part of the process.

Today’s fast-paced, attention-deficit-filled world doesn’t make listening easy, but Talgam believes it’s still possible. And extremely important.

“Each time you’re tempted as a manager or a professor or teacher just to tell people what to do, and forget about making them partners in dialogue,” Talgam says to stop what you're doing and remember that a failure to listen stymies growth.

As for the “ignorant maestro” himself, he said he still enjoys conducting an orchestra, but not within the constraints of the classical music industry. “This kind of art requires so many resources, so the industry is very difficult to satisfy," he told us.

So now, his baton at rest, Talgam prefers conducting inside corporate boardrooms, practicing keynote listening with everyone in attendance, seeing what kind of a symphony they can all create – together.

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