A renowned orchestra proves that companies can thrive without a boss

Who needs a maestro?
Who needs a maestro?
Image: Neda_Navaee
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A curious game of musical chairs happens every time the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra gets together. After every piece, the musicians shuffle positions, where a violinist in the front might move to the back so another violinist can take center stage. Unlike other classical music ensembles, the maverick New York City-based orchestra doesn’t believe in hierarchies, set seating positions, or roles. And it never performs with a conductor.

Switching seats several times during a single concert reveals Orpheus’s unique perspective on leadership. Instead of relying on a solitary leader wielding a baton or shining a spotlight on a handful of standout performers, Orpheus’s musicians seamlessly go from leadership to supporting roles at every turn.

Per its founding philosophy, Orpheus’s 34 core members resist the usual “corporate path” of symphony orchestras and consider each other equals. Except for the musician who does some advanced work to adapt a composition for the orchestra, each player—no matter their age, tenure or résumé—earns the same pay for every concert and has a voice in all creative decisions. The fellow musicians debate and fine-tune each piece as a collective.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's bassoon section
The woodwinds.
Image: Neda Navaee

Of course, Orpheus’s collective ethos doesn’t mean that players don’t have egos or strong opinions. Their creative process can be “messy” as Alexander Scheirle, the orchestra’s executive director affectionately describes it. During a practice session for Orpheus’s most recent concert at Carnegie Hall, a substitute player suggested that a section of George Gerhwin’s Cuban Overture could be “more delicious and flowing.” Unlike other organizations which might frown upon the idea of a sub offering pointers, hearing those opinions is part of Orpheus’s vetting process. A potential full-time member must not only play well but also show sound artistic sensibility and prove their ability to articulate feedback.

Getting a permanent seat at Orpheus can take several years. While other classical orchestras conduct blind auditions—hiring the best-sounding musician who performed behind a screen that day—Orpheus likes to get to know a potential member by performing and traveling with them a few times. Group fit, explains Scheirle, is as important as musical talent. “If you have a person that plays beautifully but can’t take criticism from peers, or interact in a team setting, that can ruin everything.” When a seat opens up, Orpheans elect a new member via secret ballot. Judging from the diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, cultural background and perspectives with the group, Orpheus somehow avoids the trap of consistently hiring the same type of people.

“You have a lot of cooks in the kitchen and a lot of opinions but at the end of the day, they all come together,” Scheirle says.

Indeed, with many world tours, over 70 albums, and dozens of accolades throughout its 50 year history, Orpheus flourishes because authority and decision-making are shared among all members.

Taking Orpheus’ leadership philosophy beyond the concert hall

Organizations can benefit from adopting facets of Orpheus’s management philosophy, says Scheirle who also oversees Orpheus Leadership Institute, a training platform where musicians share their unique takes on creative collaboration and holacracy (a work structure with no hierarchy).

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Listen and lead: Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have taught workshops at companies like IBM, Kraft, and Morgan Stanley.
Image: Courtesy of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

For one, rotating leadership roles fosters humility and mutual respect among colleagues, Scheirle explains. “When you’re in a leadership chair, you learn to do it in the most respectful way because half an hour later, you’ll be in the hot seat,” he says. “This [cycle] creates a deeply respectful way of communicating.”

A flat organization can bolster individual participation and create a sense of ownership, says Scheirle. In other ensembles where only star players get to sit at the front of the stage you see a kind of tapering of energy the further back one sits. Orpheans by contrast are all “leaning in.” Bassoonist Gina Cuffari says a sense of pride courses through the entire ensemble. “We’re so proud when we go out on stage and share our music with everybody,” she explains. “It’s empowering because we know that we created this ourselves—every single one of us did.”

Agility is also a key tenet of the Orpheus method. This is particularly evident when the orchestra invites a soloist to perform with them. Having worked with a long list of performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, Orpheus’s members are primed to work with the varying styles or temperaments of guest performers. Working with legendary Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval in February, the ensemble ceded to the 72-year old’s suggestion for a more emotional rendering of a piece he composed.

And in the middle of a concert at Carnegie Hall, they obliged Sandoval’s unusual request to pause the show and repeat part of a piece because he felt that he didn’t quite nail it on the first try. “I don’t think I’d forgive myself if I didn’t get that right,” said Sandoval to the audience, sheepishly. He eventually nailed the allegretto and the orchestra looked very pleased they’d helped him shine.

Cellist Jim Wilson says playing with Orpheus has taught him a lot about the nuance of influence and power. He cites the impact of fellow musician Maya Gunji who plays the timpani. Though she doesn’t say much during rehearsals, Wilson considers her an anchor of the entire ensemble. “She really chooses her words very carefully but you totally rely on her to be the backbone of whatever music that you’re playing,” he explains. “That’s kind of leadership through silence.”

Wilson, who also serves as one of three artistic directors along with Cuffari and violist Christof Huebner, says he’s curious to see how Orpheus’s philosophy could change something like government bureaucracies. “In politics, I feel that there’s too much emphasis on leading in the front,” he observes “But sometimes you lead from the back, or the side where you become a good ally or a partner. Sometimes you step out and lead from outside.”

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Carnegie Hall, 09/26/2019
Team ovation.
Image: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

The qualities of an effective self-governing organization

Is Orpheus’s formula transferrable to other organizations? Can harmony, parity, and a sense of fulfillment really occur within self-governing teams?

Julianna Pillemer, a professor at New York University’s business school says that companies like Morningstar and Zappos have been doing this for years. Xavier School, a Jesuit school in the Philippines, also subscribes to a similar leadership rotation model. The key, Pillemer explains, is designing an infrastructure that fosters trust among members. “A strong culture of helping and collaboration with incentives and hiring practices to ensure this remains, are critical to sustaining this model,” she says.

On a fundamental level, teams might follow Orpheus’s core principle of collaboration. “Civility is the norm,” says Wilson. “On the rare occasion that somebody speaks on the verge of rudeness, they’ll get a talking to from the group. We talk about language—what’s appropriate, what’s not; just like every other workplace should.”