Itay Talgam on leadership

Itay Talgam

His Ted talk on the leadership lessons to be learnt from great orchestral conductors has had more than two million views. Here Itay Talgam tells Director how business leaders can set the tempo in their own organisations

He has conducted some of the world’s greatest orchestras, but Itay Talgam now has a different group of professionals keen to follow his lead.

Since conferencing organisation Ted put a talk by the Israeli maestro online in 2009, it has been viewed over 2.2 million times, and he now finds himself in demand in the business world – regularly giving talks to leaders from governments and global companies.

So what is it about the video – offering his insights into the contrasting approaches of six different conductors – that has resonated so strongly with the business community worldwide?

“I think there is something deeper than a trend happening,” Talgam tells Director on a call from his home city of Tel Aviv.

“Some kind of deeper understanding has emerged that simply commanding people is not enough. Today there are so many gaps in business – whether they’re geographical, as businesses globalise and spread out, or technological, and so on – that [business leaders] have to, even more than previously, rely on building a culture that will emancipate people and encourage co-operation. It brings you back to the roots of what are the right sort of relations between people working together.”

Talgam’s favourite example of a leadership style that failed to foster such good relations comes from Italian conductor Riccardo Muti – a man who has been observed to take a very stern approach with an orchestra, allowing no room for an interpretation of the music outside of his own.

“He’s a very likeable, loveable man and yet he’s an old-style dictator on the podium, which I think causes him and everyone around him stress and actually prevents him from getting the top jobs,” says Talgam.

“There’s a generic musicians’ joke, sometimes told about Muti. A violinist comes out of a concert hall and his friend asks him, ‘How was the concert with Muti?’ And the violinist replies: ‘Well, it was good – it could have been better, but he wouldn’t let us!’ It’s saying an organisation always has more to give than one person can imagine. And if that one person, being a very capable musician or business leader, just dictates and imposes their view and solution on everything, the result could indeed be very good – they could be a genius in their field – but it could have been better.”

The stress effect of Muti’s leadership style on his musicians was no joke in real life – and was laid bare when, in 2005, he received a letter signed by 700 employees of La Scala urging him to resign.

“They were saying, ‘Even though the results are great, what happens on the way to the results is very harmful to us as human beings’,” says Talgam.

So, when it comes to taking inspiration from a conductor to apply to business leadership, who does Talgam recommend?

“Across the board in every industry I’ve met, from people managing small teams to CEOs of huge companies, the Googles of this world, they all go for [Carlos] Kleiber or [Leonard] Bernstein in what they wish to become,” he says.

Taking the example of Kleiber – the late Austrian conductor considered one of the 20th century’s greats – Talgam says: “Kleiber manages to build a culture in which everyone has ownership of a certain aspect of interpretation. Through a wonderful, sophisticated virtuoso body language, his idea is to control not people, but process – and then he leaves a lot of space for people to find how they best feed into the process. But he does it in an authoritative way that makes it very clear to the orchestra that it is their job to fill those spaces with their interpretation.”

Talgam – who expands on his observations in a newly released book The Ignorant Maestro: How great leaders inspire unpredictable brilliance – adds that a key factor in successfully implementing a more inspiring style, such as Kleiber’s, is the organisation’s overall perception of leadership in the first place.

“The idea that somebody has to know all the answers, and preferably this somebody is in charge of everybody else, is, I think, totally wrong,” he says. “Many times, nobody knows the answer – it’s something to be discovered, and it’s all about setting the right conditions to come up with the knowledge. One great mistake is not allowing for mistakes; another is assuming you can be a source of knowledge or solutions for your people.”

So what could someone who is more of a ‘Muti’ than a ‘Kleiber’ start doing today to change their style? “Organisations make a lot of effort to make sure the voice of the leader is always heard – if somebody gives a command it will reach everyone, which is very nice,” says Talgam.

“But I would recommend the opposite, I recommend ‘keynote listening’ instead of ‘keynote speaking’. You have to be able to listen to everyone, make them want to speak to you – make the guy who cleans the floor want to come to you and say, ‘Hey, listen, I noticed this’. You have to listen to them in ways that make them speak about things they would never have otherwise thought of expressing.”

1958 Born in Tel Aviv. Went on to gain a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Switched from piano to conducting after his military service in the Israeli army
1987 Makes his international debut when Leonard Bernstein chooses him to conduct the Orchestre de Paris in a special concert. Goes on to lead orchestras across Europe and becomes the first Israeli conductor to perform with the St Petersburg Philharmonic
2009 Global conference organisation Ted uploads Talgam’s talk on the leadership styles of great conductors to its website. It has since had 2.2 million views
2015 Talgam’s book, The Ignorant Maestro: How great leaders inspire unpredictable brilliance, is published by Penguin (£14.99)

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About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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