Power Questions Are the Wrong Questions

Very often in my travels around the country to visit with orchestras I am asked about power. "Who has the real power?" "Is the real power in the music director, the board chair, or the executive director?" "Where in this organization should the final authority lie?" "If the conductor and executive director disagree, who settles it?" These are some typical examples (and I could give many more) of questions I have experienced that all have to do with power. Along with that often comes the "whom should the music director report to?" question--i.e., should it be the executive director or the board chair?
I have always tried to be consistent in my answers: Questions about power are the wrong questions, and excessive interest in power rather than in building an organization that can come to consensus through constructive internal discussion and debate rather than reliance on lines of authority is, to me, an indication of an unhealthy orchestral organization.

Conductors who insist that they must have the "power" to make all programming decisions, choose all guest artists and conductors, control everything even remotely related to music because that is the natural authority of a music director are not, in my view, suited to lead an orchestral organization. (It is also generally these conductors who are the quickest to blame the marketing department or some other aspect of management if the decisions that they single-handedly make don't seem to result in success at the box office.) It should be obvious that there is almost no decision at an orchestra that is purely artistic, or purely fiscal. A board chair who tries to exercise total control because officially he or she is the CEO of the organization, when in fact he or she has no professional experience in the business of running orchestras, is as unsuited to that job as I would be to the job of CEO at a bank or an insurance company.  

Too often in recent years I have encountered orchestras where instead of exploring the development of a healthy governance process that respected all views, encouraged an open culture of debate and consensus-forming, and allowed for an unemotional exploration of the pros and cons of important decisions, the debate instead centered around drawing the lines of authority, the lines of power.

The truth is that almost any question an orchestra faces does not have one right answer. Real life is not black or white--it is gray, many shades of gray. How much contemporary music should we play? What kind of contemporary music? How should we program and present it? What is the right investment in community engagement, and what is its purpose? Should we engage high-priced soloists guaranteed to fill all the seats, but with fees that may not even cover those extra ticket sales? Would those soloists help sell enough season tickets to justify the fee? How do we balance the fee with the artistic experience? How do we present ourselves in our marketing?  This is only the very tip of the tip of the iceberg. Every one of these questions admits of different answers in different orchestras at different times in their histories.

While it is true that ultimately someone has to make a decision on all of those questions, and many others, it is wrong-headed to focus on who is the person with that power. The focus should be on developing an organizational culture and set of processes that allow for such a healthy internal debate that an institutional consensus will develop and make unnecessary the exercise of one person's authority. It is, of course, much easier and far less complicated to focus on developing lines of authority--and sadly, some of our friends from the corporate world favor those lines of authority because they can work in that world (though I'm not sure it is best there either). But nonprofit organizations supported by volunteers and contributions definitely do not work best that way. Spending a lot of time discussing power and authority might be less complicated than developing a healthy internal culture, but it is not in the orchestra's best interest.
October 10, 2008 12:01 PM | | Comments (3)



When one travels outside the US, they find orchestras whose programming is governed by a Program Committee--which is typically musician run. This, in some respects, takes the heat off of the 'powers' that be. The Music Director, typically the conductor, can offer suggestions, but it will be the program committee that makes the choices for the programs.

This post reminds me of an article I saw in the Dallas Morning News about the appointment of Doug Adams as the DSO's new CEO. In referring to the tenure of previous CEO Fred Bronstein, they listed one of his achievements as hiring Jaap van Zweden as music director. Very interesting that the newspaper would pharse it that way; I guess we now know where they stand on the power and authority debate!

It is probably fair to point out that statement may well be that of a newspaper reporter rather than that of the Dallas Symphony - and it would not be the first time that the press tried to simplify something that was, in fact, rather complex.

I agree that that who is in power is not the question to ask. Of course, there must be a real answer to that question but how it is asked is I believe more the question.

Conductors have traditionally held power in such a way in the past that it has been detrimental to the orchestra. The movement to change that has been good for the industry. I agree that a conductor wanting to make all the decisions is not suited to run that organization. However, the same is also true of the executive director (who has now been changed to CEO), thereby becoming the same thing the conductor has been traditionally in the past. I believe that neither one of these should have the final authority and neither is suited to run an orchestral organization as sole authority.

However, every orchestra has different needs. Where the conductor is not resident, it might be prudent that the executive director BE a CEO. Where the conductor is resident, than it might be better for two presidents who decide together and the board being the final decision in times of differences of opinion. Let's understand that many of today's conductors are well versed in marketing, development, working with budgets, and fund raising while many executive directors are performing musicians who are familiar with the latest guest artists, good programming, and artistic standards. Both are well rounded and renaissance men in the industry.

I think though that a balance must be achieved so that neither the conductor nor the executive director has the final decision in ALL matters. While it may be difficult and idealistic, I think consensus is always the best way to go, involving board, musicians, and community. If there should be a final arbiter, it ought to be the board, not the conductor or the executive director.

I could not agree more. An orchestra is too complex an organization for the power to be concentrated in one hand. What is also important, though, is that leaders lead -- consensus can and should be sought, but one does have to be careful that a bland middle-ground is not the result. That is sometimes a risk.


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