Carrot or Stick?

Two key ingredients of Excellence in any professional pursuit are to master the relevant disciplines and to apply them at every opportunity. A recent choral singing experience has left me rather thoughtful about the leadership practices most likely to develop and deliver Excellence through others.

I have been a member of a 200-person amateur symphony chorus for nearly 20 years, and during that period, the chorus’s performance has steadily improved. For our latest concert, we were rehearsed by a stand-in chorus master whose approach was very different from that of the chorus master who has led us throughout my membership. Both men are equally well qualified and highly gifted musicians, and both expect equally high performance standards from their choirs. But we are used to a very critical and directive style of leadership which contrasted sharply with the stand-in master’s much “softer” all round approach.

For example, he regularly took the time to tell us what we were doing well, as well as correcting us when we were getting things wrong. He was often quite generous in his praise, in stark contrast to our regular master. He challenged us to perform one of the movements in the concert from memory—no mean feat when the text is in Polish! He assured us from the first rehearsal that we were good enough to take this on, and kept reminding us of this throughout the rehearsal sequence. He even provided us with some novel support materials to help us all to practice our Polish at home.

On the day of the concert he cancelled the normal pre event “warm up” session, which is usually quite an ordeal for us to get through just before a live performance. He said he had been more than satisfied with our performance at the dress rehearsal in the morning. This is totally unheard of!

Our performance was one of our best ever and acclaimed by the critics. The movement we had learned by heart completely stole the show. But … here’s my question … did the stand-in chorus master succeed because of the disciplines that had already been drilled into us by our regular leader? What would happen to our performance standards if we worked with the new chorus master in the long term? Would his approach result in a gradual reduction in standards?

I tried these questions out over a drink in the pub with my choir mates, and the opinion was divided 50/50. What do readers of this blog think?

Madeleine McGrath posted this on August 27, 2009, in Leadership.
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