The Uncommon Leadership Series

Guest Commentary

Jack Wilson, President, University of Massachusetts
Keith Lockhart has proven himself to be an extraordinary and astute leader. We have both been selected to lead an organization with a rich heritage of more than 100 years. Our country has few institutions that have endured and thrived for so long. While we must respect heritage, we must not be confined by it. Organizations that stand the test of time, such as the Boston Pops and the University of Massachusetts, do so by changing and adapting to the needs of its constituencies.

As leaders, Keith and I carry a responsibility of stewardship for our respective institutions. Like businesses, we must stay close to our markets to understand the evolving needs of our customers. Whether updating curriculum, exploring new musical genres or finding underserved markets, our value propositions must stay relevant for our organizations to flourish.

Keith Lockhart and John Williams echo an important message-the institution is bigger than its leaders. Businesses operate within a community of relationships among its talent, customers and shareholders. One of the challenges for leaders is to align its stakeholders around a vision in a way that each member of the community shares ownership. When the talent of the organization feels invested in the leader's decisions, it operates at high performance and with velocity. When the talent feels disenfranchised, the performance of the organization declines.

The Boston Pops is a lesson in excellence. Its excellence transcends its history of 20 conductors. Yet, each conductor has had an important influence on its continued success. In today's competitive marketplace, leadership is increasingly about unlocking the potential of its talent. As Keith Lockhart says, "The best compliment a musician can give a conductor is, 'You made it so easy to play'." That's high praise in any organization.

Alan G. Robinson, Isenberg School of Management , University of Massachusetts Amherst

Keith Lockhart's comments regarding the parallels between leading an orchestra and a business, show an insight about the limitations of top-down leadership. Keith talked about how he dropped the top-down management style that is the norm in his industry (and everywhere else, too). When Frederick Taylor founded scientific management in the early 1900s, his central premise was that there should be "those who think, and those who do". His prescription for rigid top-down management did make factories more efficient at the time, but it can only take an organization so far. Today, top-down management is perhaps the main thing holding organizations back around the world.


Strong natural forces come to bear on people as they rise up their organizations - forces that few can resist and that make most people grow increasingly top-down the higher they go. The system constantly bombards up-and-coming managers with signals - through their pay, perks, authority and a myriad of other ways - that they are better than their subordinates. This breeds arrogance, and a lack of respect for talent and their ideas. But today, it is simply impossible to reach excellence in performance - that is, to truly stand out from the competition - without having real respect for those who work for you, and actively seeking and using their ideas. Effective leadership these days is based on humility, as the best-selling business book Good to Great documents so well.

I was also struck by Lockhart's comment that in the old days, the artistic side and the business side of the Boston Pops were run as separate silos, but the orchestra cannot afford to operate this way any more. Over the last twenty years, the management of corporate R&D has evolved in a similar way. Although research scientists often resent their work being tied closer to market forces, just as Lockhart's musicians no doubt did or perhaps still do, books such as Winning at New Products and The Ten Faces of Innovation document well the surprising benefits that come by putting the "creative" side of the business in better touch with the market. Business leaders should take note of the innovations and market-driven innovations that Keith Lockhart has introduced at the Boston Pops.

Robert Mahoney '70, Vice Chairman, Citizens' Financial
Keith Lockhart reminds us that successful leaders think a lot about the environment they create. Keith is very sensitive to the individual aspirations of each of the Symphony members and the importance of shared decision making, in spite of a very hierarchical environment. I like his comment about the best compliment being "you made it so easy to play." Every great leader should aspire to that reaction from their colleagues.

Maryanne Cataldo '79, CEO, City Lights Electrical Co., Inc.
Keith Lockhart provides us with a unique perspective on "how to manage the best of the best". His commentary is very relevant to us at City Lights Electrical. Our organization, like an orchestra, has a relatively flat hierarchy. Most of our field employees are licensed electricians, many master electricians, who are entrusted, like musicians, to know their craft and make their own decisions. They are entrepreneurs who did "not dream about taking orders." They want to "own" and be accountable for their work.

Senior managers have "the dream." They need to be given the conditions to be best of class. Keith puts it succinctly: "My job is to remove the obstacles that make the musician's job difficult." Isn't this the management goal of every CEO?

Keith brings out the point that the conductor or CEO has the job of understanding the community and harnessing the organizational talent to articulate the vision. The deliverable comes forth with unity, or, as a conductor would say, as a symphony. Ultimately, the goal of customer service and repeat business are realized.

Corinne Johnson '80, General Manager, GE Engines Lynn
Keith Lockhart recognizes the importance of stewardship and adapting to changing environments. As the General Manger of the GE Engines Lynn facilities, I oversee a manufacturing site that dates back to 1893. The Lynn River Works Plant is more than a manufacturing plant. The activities of the site are interwoven into the fabric of the community. We have a responsibility to our customers and our talented employees to embrace change or find ourselves irrelevant to both.

Both the Boston Pops and the River Works plant were born during very different times from today. There were no computers, CD players or "flying machines". Both institutions have endured by responding the changing market conditions, embracing new technologies and demanding excellence in all that we do. One of our jobs as leaders is to carry on the tradition of continuous improvement just as our predecessors have. Adaptation is essential whether you are making music or jet engines.

David J. Gray, CEO, UMassOnline
Keith Lockhart provides some important messages about leadership. First, he points out that leaders cannot afford to merely focus their attention on the organizational silo which they have direct responsibility and which they best understand. Rather, effective leaders must be multifaceted and take a broad view of their organization. In Lockhart's case, the artistic side of an orchestra is his first love and passion as well as his primary responsibility. He recognizes, however, that musical success is closely intertwined with the business and financial health of the Boston Pops. Effective leadership demands that he understand the business conditions surrounding the Pops and assist in promoting the orchestra's financial viability.

Second, Keith points out a prominent attribute of many contemporary organizations, i.e., what he terms the "flat hierarchy." Leadership in flat (or less vertical) organizations requires the development of different communications and executive skills. Similar to businesses and even universities, good leaders must "orchestrate" (now we know where that term comes from!) the development of effective teams. The players on those teams must feel, as Keith puts it, "invested in the leader's decisions" as well as manifesting a certain degree of ownership over their own decisions. When the individual members of an orchestra come together with that right balance of leadership and autonomous choice, the result is beautiful music! This image of blending the team and individual interests, all under the "baton" of an effective leader, is powerful and one that cuts across many, if not most, modern enterprises.

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