The 8 Leadership Principles of Orpheus, the Conductor-less Chamber Orchestra

Last November, I interviewed Ayden Adler, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Executive Director to find out more about the successes, the advantages and the challenges of the organization’s exceptional case of shared leadership.


The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is an award-winning orchestra that holds over 70 concerts every year in venues in Asia, Europe and North America. Founded in 1972 by Julian Fifer and fellow musicians including Ronald Bauch and Joanna Jenner, Orpheus is a self-regulating orchestra where musicians function in a collaborative leadership style to conduct rehearsals and give concerts. Because of this self-governing approach, musicians are not limited to the conductor’s viewpoints and perspectives on how to interpret musical compositions.


Not only within the orchestra itself but throughout the entire organization is a shared leadership approach reinforced in order to incorporate every member’s perspectives and values in the results produced and the decisions made. This is done in part by the election of three musicians to sit on the Board of Trustees. In addition, musicians are included in the administration and play an important role in the selection of every member of the organization.


Some advantages of this shared leadership approach include: an increase in innovation and performance, the ability to reach a wider audience and a more enjoyable work environment.


Here are the 8 leadership principles reinforced by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and defined by the organization’s past Executive Director, Harvey Seifter. These guidelines should not be limited to the music industry; in fact every type of organization can get inspired by Orpheus’ collective leadership style to benefit from an increase in performance and innovation due to a more enjoyable and collective work environment.


For those wishing to find out more, please note that this case will be analyzed and elaborated in my book on profiles of shared leadership scheduled to come out at the end of 2012.


The 8 Leadership principles of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra according to Harvey Seifter:


1. Placing the power in the hands of workers. The musicians playing in the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra make their own decisions on their musical program. That is, they decide who leads the group, how the piece will be played and who will be invited to join them (i.e. substitute musicians). They also elect the musicians that will sit on the Board of Trustees and within the management staff.


2. Encouraging individual responsibility for a better product quality . There is a shared responsibility by every musician regarding individual and collective performances. Each musician is welcome to give feedback to a colleague regardless of the instrument they play. In this way, a collective listening approach is encouraged by the common desire to achieve the mission.


3. Creating clearly defined roles. Every musician has a clear understanding of his/her role within the orchestra. Potential roles include:


  • The Concertmaster, the first violin (among equals) who is in charge of assisting the group during rehearsals and performances.
  • The trustees on the Board: three musicians are elected to sit on the Board for the length of three years.
  • Three other musicians are elected to represent the orchestra within the administration staff.


4. Fostering teamwork.


5. Working in shared leadership. Every musician has the opportunity to play leadership roles such as leading rehearsals or directing the performance of a new musical composition. The decision rests on the group; the leader is chosen according to expertise, strengths and interests.


6. Learning to listen and listening to learn. One of the key principles of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra can be understood in Dr. Adler’s words: “learn when and how to talk”. In contrast to other orchestras, Orpheus continuously reinforces a two-way communication system.


7. Seeking consensus: Every time a strategy is proposed during a rehearsal, the entire orchestra has to reach a consensus before implementing it. Every musician’s perspectives, ideas and vision is taken into consideration and incorporated into the strategy.


8. Passion-driven dedication. Emotions are freely expressed within the organization, leaving no room for resentment. If a member of the orchestra is frustrated about a subject, another musician takes care of calming them down.


(These principles were derived from Harvey Seifter’s article “The Conductor-less Orchestra” in the journal Leader to Leader, No. 21 Summer 2001)


Edith Luc, Ph.D.


© 2011. Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.

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