Five Leadership Mistakes Of The Galactic Empire

It’s tough to pass up an article with a headline like today’s post but credit for the hook goes to forbes.com and the 2/13/2012 article written by Alex Knapp under the same title. Just in case you haven’t paid attention to pop culture in the last 30 or so odd years, the Galactic Empire is the main bad guy faction in the Star Wars universe; i.e. Darth Vader, the Emperor, et al. What makes Knapp’s article intriguing is how its main points stack up when juxtaposed alongside the orchestra field.

Mistake #1: Building an organization around particular people, rather than institutions.

Darth Vader demonstrating no tolerance for failureIn all reality, this isn’t a bad thing for some groups. In fact, the larger an organization’s budget, the more frequently this occurs. Can anyone name a Big 5 level orchestra that hasn’t built budgets, reputations, and legacy around one or more iconic music directors?

At the same time, Knapp’s counsel against making the institution’s “singular focus on the preservation of power for the Emperor and a few of his chosen lackeys” is something any organization would benefit from by taking to heart. The line between artistic legacy and injurious self preservation is razor thin and any group risks sliding down that slippery slope if they toe over that line.

Mistake #2: Depriving people of the chance to have a stake in the organization.

No degradation of applicable value here; indeed, this is one of the most talked about yet contentious aspects of this business over the past decade. In short, it is one thing to say you value a stakeholder’s input but practicing what we preach can be harder than it looks, especially when budgets, bargaining, and artistic integrity collide.

Mistake #3: Having no tolerance for failure.

Right, I don’t think the field has anything to worry about here anytime soon. Between listening to managers complain about tenure and musicians complain about the revolving door executives, excessive accountability doesn’t exactly rise to the level of an extinction event.

Mistake #4: Focusing all of the organization’s efforts into a single goal and failing to consider alternatives.

This one might strike a chord with more folks than not and if there’s one thing this business does well, it’s focusing on a narrow spectrum of goals, doing a good job at reaching those goals while ignoring everything else, then sit back and wonder what went wrong.

Example: We need a new concert. Hooray, we have a new concert hall. What do you mean we’re running huge annual deficits and what’s an operating endowment?

Mistake #5: Failing to learn from mistakes.

This one is fairly open-ended and the real benefit is perhaps thinking about how it applies throughout all areas of the field. As a broad illustration, labor relations seem especially susceptible to this point; especially when they turn sour.

The slew of ugly labor disputes over the past few years where stakeholders demonize one another to win a comparatively meaningless PR point while inflicting large scale institutional damage as everyone watches with jaws agape doesn’t seem to be keeping other groups from following suit. It’s enough to make one wonder if they even bother to read culture news.

The Bottom Line

Knapp writes that the Galactic Empire failed as a result of “incredibly flawed leadership at the very top” and that’s an apt warning for the entire field, especially given the amount of decision making authority and influence concentrated among a comparatively small number of individuals.

Moreover, his summary is just the sort of thing to get you thinking.

By building an organizational culture based on fear, lack of independence, and an unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances, the Emperor set the stage for his own inevitable failure.

How many ways do you see your organization falling victim to this self defeating spiral? Conversely, can you identify examples that indicate how your group is the antithesis?

Curious to learn more about the who’s who among orchestra stakeholders? Then check out the essays on orchestra governance in the resource center.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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