(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)
'The soloist was a woman, and a particularly beautiful one at that. Throughout the morning, she gave us her constant loving attention, making sure she always played to the orchestra, maintaining eye contact with each of them. The generosity which had led her to accept us, now shone out through the hall. After so much effort, we needed this. Sometimes, the players just couldn't react to her finely shaded interpretation and my accompaniment of her. So she changed it to work for them. I was impressed, and they were in awe.'
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin
Much is said and written about how to lead collaboratively. Quite right too; it is and will continue to be an increasingly important and sought-after ability.
Sometimes, however, the more we think about and study something the less willing we become to acknowledge and value some simple truths about it.
Only when we see their power, in the moment, are we forced to turn and nod our heads in their direction.
The above quotation describes such a moment. The soloist is violin virtuoso Arabella Steinbacher and she is rehearsing Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the orchestra. 'Constant loving attention', 'always playing to the orchestra', 'maintaining eye contact with each of them': this is the moment to moment body language of not only a sensitive and collaborative musician but also a sensitive and collaborative leader. It radiates generosity and an enthusiasm for playing with rather than playing to: of working and performing with people rather than assuming and expecting that others are willing and able to follow the direction you wish to take.
The effect of Arabella Steinbacher's collaborative approach was two-fold: 1. it built a strong, warm and effective working relationship with the conductor and the orchestra; and 2, it laid the foundations for a performance which was less about straightforward compromise and more about uncovering complimentary strengths and subtly balancing and melding them.
The concert performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was not likely to have been one that any of the performers had imagined beforehand; it was probably surprising and unique to the situation -- and stronger and more memorable as a result.
The lesson for anyone seeking to lead collaboratively is clear: be willing to live in the moment with your partners and demonstrate your generosity of spirit and flexibility of action through your moment-to-moment interactions with them. Yes, keep your direction and purpose in mind but be open to and willing to embrace the variations your partners seek to weave in and around them. You will then most likely achieve your goals in unique and surprisingly effective ways.