The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance

The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance

by Itay Talgam
The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance

The Ignorant Maestro: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance

by Itay Talgam



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“Choosing ignorance might seem a terrible quality to exhibit in your workplace—a sure path down the stairs and out the corporate door. But stick with me here and see how it leads you upward. You’ll understand why great leaders embrace ignorance and use it to elevate their people to new heights of achievement.”

A conductor in front of his orchestra is an iconic symbol of leadership—but what does a true maestro actually do to enable the right sort of cooperation among his players, leading to an excellent performance? If you think his primary job is making sure the musicians play the right notes, prepare to be surprised.

For twenty years, in addition to conducting orchestras around the world, Itay Talgam has been a “conductor of people” for companies large and small, for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as startup entrepreneurs, and beyond. Drawing on his decades of experience on the podium, he teaches nonmusicians how conducting really works and how the conductor’s art can help leaders in any field.

In his lectures (including an acclaimed TED talk) and now in this book, Talgam shows why imposing your vision on your people is likely to backfire. Great conductors may know in advance how they want a piece to be played, but they make room for the creativity and passion of their musicians. They respect the gap between the baton and the instruments. They focus more on listening than on speaking. And they embrace their own ignorance, knowing that others may have better ideas than the conductor can imagine.

Talgam explores the nuances of leadership by describing the distinctive styles of six world-famous conductors: the commanding Riccardo Muti, the fatherly and passionate Arturo Toscanini, the calm Richard Strauss, the gurulike Herbert von Karajan, the dancing Carlos Kleiber, and the master of dialogue Leonard Bernstein. All took different approaches to the age-old leadership dilemma: how to maximize both control and creative freedom at the same time.

The Ignorant Maestro will empower you to help your own team make even more beautiful music. Talgam’s anecdotes and insights will change the way you think about listening, humility, and the path to unpredictable brilliance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698154742
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/19/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 679 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

ITAY TALGAM, a protégé and disciple of the great Leonard Bernstein, has conducted many prominent orchestras and ensembles worldwide, including the Orchestre de Paris, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Leipzig Opera House. He also teaches leadership to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and universities, and at conferences around the world, including TED, Google’s Zeitgeist, and the World Economic Forum at Davos.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

A French philosopher living today, Jacques Ranciere, writes in The Ignorant Schoolmaster about the eccentric theory of a nineteenth-century French professor, Joseph Jacotot, who made this outrageous claim:

An ignorant can teach another ignorant what he does not know himself.
This sentence, I find, needs to be read at least twice, and then (in my case, at least) it brings about a sense of disbelief mixed with wonder and joy. Is this possible? If true, it is as fantastic a discovery as the invention of a perpetual motion device. Each one of us can teach everyone
else everything! In “ordinary” teaching one expects the teacher to know the subject matter—and
clearly for every one thing we know we are ignorant of so many! Here, then, is a way of acquiring infinite new knowledge.

But how? How can illiterate parents teach reading to their children? We need to understand, says Jacotot, that being ignorant has nothing to do with being stupid. Moreover, basic to Jacotot’s thinking is the claim of “the equality of intelligences,” implying that the intelligence of an illiterate farmer, who is nevertheless knowledgeable about everything to do with the best way to grow crops, equals the intelligence of a good lawyer or a good scientist. Not only is their intelligence equal, but knowing one thing is like knowing another, in the sense that knowing this one thing is proof of your ability to learn others (Jacotot thought that learning your mother’s tongue was proof enough!). So the teacher is only ignorant in the specific context of what he teaches. Moreover, the good teacher, even if he possesses the “relevant” knowledge, knows how to dissociate himself from that knowledge: He does not teach his knowledge to
his students.

So what does the teacher do, and how can he become a masterful teacher? In Ranciere’s rather festive words, “He commands them {the students} to venture forth in the forest, to tell what they see, what they think of what they have seen.” In other words, he encourages them to
give their own interpretation of their discoveries. The teacher’s challenge is to help the student whenever his power of will—not his intelligence—is failing him, facing the hardships of his study. He has to make sure the student pays attention. In doing this, the teacher verifies the learning process rather than its outcomes. The ignorant schoolmaster is “willfully ignorant” of the student’s final learning concerning a certain phenomenon. His mastery is in helping the student discover something that he, the teacher, may be ignorant of himself.

As we turn our thoughts from teaching to leading, I believe Jacotot’s radical view of the teacher’s role translates into an equally radical and promising view of the leader’s role. Our first step would be to embrace the idea that just as anyone can learn and teach, so is everyone a follower and a leader. “Leadership” is not an exclusive category of human behavior inaccessible to “followers.”

The next step would be to understand the place of knowledge—this intellectual asset we all work so hard to acquire—in the making of a leader. What about our valuable hard-earned experience? Expertise? Are we now being asked to forget it and succumb to ignorance?

Again, the ignorance we preach is not of the classic definition, which may manifest itself in denying the danger of smoking or being unable to point to Nebraska on a map of the United States. We do obviously want leaders to be well informed and knowledgeable in their field of operation; people of broad understanding of the past and present state of their disciplines, and even have a wide knowledge in other fields. Knowledge of all types is needed in order to
point in the direction of the “forest” (to use Ranciere’s image) to be explored. Our professional and political leaders do not need to forget what they know; they only need todissociate themselves from their knowledge when “the search has begun,” in other words, as they step into the future.

They should be ready to leap into the unknown while not relying on their knowledge, without even predicting the outcome of the search. By making predictions, one can ruin the chance of discovering new knowledge.

How would knowledge and self-imposed ignorance work to create something utterly new? Let’s consider one of the great innovators of all time: Ludwig van Beethoven.In what sense can one refer to Beethoven as ‘ “ignorant” when writing a symphony? Surely he had to be extremely knowledgeable to compose a symphony—for example, he had to understand the technical possibilities of every instrument in the orchestra. He had to have extensive knowledge of the technique of writing music in the contemporary classical style, and in the older techniques—that was a necessary part of every composer’s training: learning to speak “the language.” What sets Beethoven apart from other composers is not superior knowledge of these and many other essential practices, but his ability to go beyond that knowledge, so his outcomes were unpredictable, to the point of surprising himself. He did that in spite of the reactions of the music professionals (“Obviously he is ripe for the madhouse” is a remark from a fellow composer). While certainly having a vision when setting to work, Beethoven was nevertheless searching the unknown, not knowing where he was going. He was experimenting, writing, and rewriting many times, until the work seemed finished.

The finished Beethoven manuscript is in itself a call for detailed study on the part of the musician performing it, as it is a call for ignorance. The standard way of writing music is not capable of denoting every aspect of the music in full precision, meaning that the musical text stays inherently open to different interpretations by the performers.

The writing uses vague and relative terms—like loud and soft, or fast and slow—thus asking the knowledgeable yet creative performer to operate beyond the zone of definite knowledge. The sound actually produced—what we hear as music—will always contain an element of surprise, undetermined by the composer.

If we believe leaders—in every field—should provide their organizations with great plans, as great as Beethoven’s symphonies, we should expect them to create their plans based on informed choices. At the same time, we should not want these plans to take a view of the future as solely determined by the past. There are, of course, lessons to be learned from the past, but these lessons may be too easily accepted and applied in a time when dynamics, business conditions, or the abilities of present-day personnel do not mirror the past. We want them to enable a difference from the past by being open to the unpredictable. In other words, we need them to choose ignorance, so that the future can be a matter of choice (with our having a say), rather than the outcome of inertial thinking.
Reprinted from THE IGNORANT MAESTRO: How Great Leaders Inspire Unpredictable Brilliance by Itay Talgam with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Itay Talgam, 2015.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Music of Business 1

Part 2 Three New Themes of Leadership 17

Chapter 1 A Brilliant Ignorance 19

Chapter 2 Don't Mind the Gap 41

Chapter 3 Keynote Listening 59

Part 3 Six Musical Variations on the Themes of Leadership 73

Chapter 4 Command and Control: Riccardo Muti 83

Chapter 5 The Godfather: Arturo Toscanini 103

Chapter 6 Play by the Book: Richard Strauss 119

Chapter 7 The Leader as Guru.- Herbert von Karajan 137

Chapter 8 Leadership Dance: Carlos Kleiber 157

Chapter 10 In Search of Meaning: Leonard Bernstein 179

Optimistic Coda: What Now? 211

Acknowledgments 217

Notes 221

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