|16 December 2015|

By Paul MacAlindin conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq 

We conductors are a funny breed; once we get a taste for it, it’s hard to stop.  Yes, we’ll tell you that the music comes first, that we are in the service of the composer, that we’re there to ‘help’, but the real reason we want to stand in front of a highly seasoned and professional workforce and tell them what to do, is because we love the electricity pulsing through our veins! We long for the power to shape the orchestra’s sound, exuding charisma through every pore (when it’s there at all) and taking people on the journey from darkness to light that great symphonic music affords us. Most of all, we love the thrill of giving everyone an epic night out.

Books on leadership are thick on the shelves, but when I took on musical directorship of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in 2008, 99% of my leadership was online. For this, there is little real guidance. Years of fundraising, video auditions, visa and project management burnt through four laptops and thousands of cups of coffee in Cologne’s internet cafes. So how did we do it?

Management guru, Charles Handy wrote Trust and the Virtual Organisation back in 1995, a classic that hits at the core of human behaviour in organisations. Trust, he says, ‘is not blind’. We build our relationships best of all face to face, which is tricky when managing an online project team. As English, German, Iraqi Arabic and Sorani Kurdish became our organisational languages, the possibilities for misunderstanding spiralled upwards. I had the relative advantage as a Scot in Germany, of being practised at modifying my English to be slower, clearer and idiom-free: so-called ‘Language Two English’. Having the patience to listen carefully and compassionately (most of the time), led to me questioning, clarifying and summarising often. We tried to get away from emails towards a higher context communication like phone, Skype or face-to-face to pick up emotional clues around our discussions. Though we rarely met face-to-face, when there was a chance, we took it.

Handy also mentions that ‘trust needs boundaries’, so we needed to build our online trust, step by step over time. Our tasks tested our response time and accuracy against the reality of a country coming out of war. We often found ourselves negotiating around shattered infrastructures or security issues. Getting the audition videos from across Iraq, for example, hit major technical and logistical barriers which tested our trust in each other, often leading to blind faith. However, the audition process became vital for establishing the players’ wider trust in our fairness, hard work ethic and inclusivity, crucial motivators for driving our musical quality over the years.

What happened when stuff didn’t get done well enough, or at all, and emails went unanswered? I would either do it myself or redelegate in order to manage a deadline. Anything could cause this: the wrong tone of email, bad timing, intercultural misunderstanding, lack of local knowledge such as public holidays or some invisible issue to do with hierarchy and internal politics. Or maybe we were just talking to the wrong people?

For a leader, all of this backs up over time like a bad drain into Sacrifice Syndrome, the project becomes high maintenance, you lose grasp of your down-time and burn out. For me, running the orchestra sometimes felt like driving a car over a cliff once a week to see if I could land softly. Eventually, I learnt how becoming numb was a sure-fire way to shut my intuition down.

For many entrepreneurs, whether socially motivated or not, it’s the the passion to build up a business from scratch that’s deeply thrilling. Our emotional gut energy gives wind to the sails of our intellect, intuition and actions. I kept that passion rolling by failing readily in our high risk environment, learning fast, feeding back into the organisation and taking the team as far as possible with me on that curve.

Through my favourite leadership matrix, from Dan Goleman’s book Primal Leadership, I see all communication as emotional, whether we’re conscious of it or not, and open to misinterpretation in an online environment. I break it down like this:

Do as I say is good for getting results where people need to be clearly told what to do, as in a crisis. This is fine for clear actions like filling out a visa application or creating an audition video, and works well with carrot-and-stick leadership. But, it’s pretty short term. Online, this style of leadership often became a conversation to clarify what was wanted, so an instruction became relationship-based.

Come with me is the much lauded visionary style, with a longer term trajectory and less value on a day-to-day basis. Trust in the orchestra had to be continually reinforced, because the orchestra’s progress over the years couldn’t always be felt. Here, I used YouTube and Facebook to demonstrate our value so that our partners and players could see and hear the tangible growth and alignment with our vision.

Democratic leadership is about a question and the patience to listen to the team’s answers, which I wrote on previously for Innovators. This showed how we built trust in each other from the outset and created our shared vision together.

We actively promoted ‘people matter’ or affiliative leading in the orchestra courses, as young players needed intensive musical care from our teaching team. However, the online reality was tougher, as we stretched to the limits the relationships we’d built with each other during our annual courses, and make them last till the next course. Going home afterwards had a kind of ‘return to default setting’ effect.  Constantly keeping the team focused on results and next steps kept our differences at bay and focused us hard on the ‘why?’ of making music.

Do as I do is pace setting, and obviously, leadership for conductors. The joke goes, an orchestra without a conductor sounds pretty good. But a conductor without an orchestra? Pretty awful! The desire to lead doesn’t mean anyone should want to follow us, and here I come to the orchestra’s core reality. Coming out of war, they were desperate for any help to rebuild their musical lives. In online management, intrinsic motivation is, of course, an aspect of success. If they can just switch you off, or worse, ‘unfriend you’, then that’s your influence over. Is somebody testing you to see how much they can get away with? Again, trust has boundaries, and these can be tested, expanded, and rebuilt if necessary. To be honest, leading online with do as I do failed to motivate some team members, whilst others learnt fast and responded with better precision and quality. I should point out that most of our project management was voluntary, so working for the orchestra always added extra pressure to our daily lives. We proved that our achievements came out of a shared vision for the orchestra and what its success meant to us as musicians.

When our sixth annual summer course, this time to the USA, was cancelled because of ISIL, I knew that trust with the players had been damaged. Even though this wasn’t my fault, I felt devastated at being caught in Iraq’s unfolding calamity. Boiling my online leadership down to one sentence, I’d say if you promise it, move heaven and hell to deliver it.


Paul’s book: UPBEAT (Sandstone Press) – the story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq – comes out in summer 2016. 

Follow: www.facebook.com/upbeat.book for updates.