Profits, politics and perfect teeth

Image of Harry Eyres

What do orchestra conductors, chief executives and political leaders have in common? Both more and less than you might think, I concluded, after attending a panel discussion on leadership and creativity and a concert in Salzburg hosted by Nestlé and the Salzburg Festival. The concert was the showpiece for Nestlé’s newly launched Young Conductors Award, which surely owes quite a lot to the fact that the chairman and former chief executive of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, had serious ambitions to become a conductor in his youth.

But what kind of conductor? You couldn’t help noticing that the blue-eyed, blue-jacketed Brabeck bore an uncanny physical resemblance to his fellow Austrian, the great but controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan. No one could seem less like Karajan than the charming and undictatorial-looking Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who appeared on the panel for the discussion before departing to the Felsenreitschule to conduct Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Nézet-Séguin roundly rejected the authoritarian, martinet tradition of figures such as Karajan and Toscanini. “Playing through fear is absolutely against the spirit of music-making,” he insisted. “It shuts down the emotional level. As a conductor you want to encourage people to express themselves as they would wish. You have a power of persuasion; you need to be sincere, honest, well-prepared. Your power is psychological.”

Here was a perfect expression of the view of leadership as the exercise of encouragement and motivation, rather than whip-cracking or slave-driving. But it was immediately challenged by a business leader who had not come to play second fiddle. Walter Kielholz, chairman of Swiss Re, talked about the way globalisation had coincided with the rise of the American-style CEO, a sort of film-star figure, “with perfect teeth (not necessarily natural)” – we all wondered who on earth he could be talking about – who does not behave at all like a democratic enabler. The danger of such people, he went on (and here the flashing teeth coalesced irresistibly for me into an image of the grinning Tony Blair), is that they come to believe their own propaganda.

Next up was the director of the World Trade Organisation and former European Union trade commissioner Pascal Lamy. He lamented the current lack of leadership in international politics; more especially in the EU. The transition from Jacques Delors to José Manuel Barroso certainly looks more like a descent into stagnation and impotence than a positive modulation towards enabling and democracy. Where does this lack of leadership come from? The answer, according to Lamy, is not necessarily to do with a decline in the quality and competence of the leader.

One thing everyone – conductors, business leaders and politicians – seemed to agree on was that leadership means nothing without the willingness to collaborate of the group, or the led. A conductor without an orchestra, after all, is just a mad person waving his or her hands.

But the question that nagged at me, partly because I felt it was not being addressed, had to do with purpose and goal. Conductor and orchestra are united in their shared aim of bringing a great piece of music to life; there is no precise equivalent to the finished score for the industrialist or the politician. In Platonic terms, the musicians are working with ideal forms, whereas the others are operating in the murky, constantly shifting world of consumer choices and voting preferences.

Nestlé may proudly announce that it is transforming itself from a food company into a “nutrition, health and wellness” company but such an announcement can only make me think of BP’s rebranding of itself as “Beyond Petroleum”. Try telling that to toasted oil rig workers or crude-coated pelicans. Such rebrandings are clearly more about wishful thinking than reality. They fall far short of Nézet-Séguin’s ideals of honesty and sincerity.

An enlightened chief executive would surely want his or her employees to express themselves, or deploy their talents, to the highest possible degree; but I would argue that that is only going to happen, in the fullest human sense, when a company’s aims go beyond narrow profit-making to include wider social, ethical and environmental concerns.

Politicians these days are held in low regard, accused of following focus groups or triangulation or other dark arts that have little to do with enlightened leadership. But on the panel in Salzburg was Petra Roth, mayor of Frankfurt-am-Main, one of the more inspiring politicians I have encountered in a long while.

Roth insisted that despite the financial crisis she was not planning any cuts in the cultural provision that has made Frankfurt an artistic and literary beacon among Germany’s cities. She is a passionate believer in musical education for the very young – how else do you nurture brilliant young musicians like those of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, who we heard making ravishing sounds under the baton of David Afkham (the gifted German-Indian winner of the Nestlé award)?

Roth seems to have a belief in politics as a way of encouraging the human and expressive potential of every citizen. She would get my vote.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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