People Skills 102

Kittens, conductors and the astonishing power of incompetence.

by Justin Locke

I played the double bass with the Boston Pops for many years and when I gave presentations about my musical memoir, “Real Men Don’t Rehearse,” I almost always was asked: “Just what exactly does the conductor actually do?

Rather than answer that question directly, I brought up a more important question, which was, “What exactly is it that makes the 'great' conductors 'great'?'"

The answer may surprise you.

It’s how they manage their incompetence.

Let me explain it this way. Imagine you’re walking down the street and you notice a little three-week old kitten clinging desperately to a branch up in a tree. It is meowing pathetically. Do you walk past and ignore it? Do you curse the kitten for being so pathetic? Do you and your friends point at the kitten and laugh? Do you ask the kitten for instructions on what you should do next? Of course not! The kitten’s helpless state engages your “hero reflex,” and you (and everyone else on the street) would drop anything and everything and address this poor little kitten’s problem, including calling the fire department if necessary.

The great conductors I played for did something very similar.

Instead of demonstrating their expertise, they created a sense of urgent helplessness. It was all very subtle and consisted primarily of what they did not do and what they did not say. It wasn’t so much about themselves … It was more a silent implication that the piece we were about to play was in terrible need of our assistance.

By creating a vacuum of direction and sometimes even a state of potential disaster and not really doing anything about it, they would engage the entire orchestra’s hero reflex. In the face of these figurative musical kittens up a tree, everyone in the orchestra would go from a default state of being passively obedient to one of taking charge of the situation aggressively. Once that focused-on-the-goal state of mind was established within the orchestra, everything just fell in place. The conductor only had to make minor tweaks here and there.

Unfortunately, most of the conductors I played for did not use this approach. Their management approach was based on a commonly accepted hierarchical form, similar to a teacher in a classroom. They felt obligated to constantly display their expertise and exert their authority. They did not understand that once a lost kitten starts telling you how to rescue it and maybe even starts to point out your mistakes, well, you quickly lose all interest in rescuing them.

Leadership Skills

There are many managerial schools of thought that place tremendous weight on the role of the leader. They focus on a leader’s ideal attributes … you hear words like “great” and “excellence.” Okay, there is a lot to be said for having a high level of competence. However, if you equate leadership with being “the most accomplished”... well, to paraphrase Romanian actor, Edward G. Robinson, “As long as you’re around, the people you are leading will always be second best.”

The best conductors had great expertise, but they used it primarily as a means of adding power and weight to their appreciation of the work we were doing for them, not as a basis for maintaining authority. By constantly emphasizing their awareness of what we were good at and by occasionally creating vacuums of leadership, they engaged our collective hero reflex. This filled the orchestra with confidence and a sense of purpose consistently, drawing levels of performance out of us that even we did not know we were capable of achieving.

The beauty of this approach is that it takes so little effort. The conductors who induced this kind of organizational confidence understood that this energy was pre-existing and the trick was to just get out of its way.

The Leader in CPAs

If you are in a leadership position, you may be somewhat averse to this idea, as it risks your “looking incompetent.” But fear not - admitting to not knowing what you’re doing will not beget contempt from your team. Far from it … what you will accomplish is:

1.    They will admire your honesty and humility; and
2.    The more you look like a lost kitten, the more they will jump up and display massive initiative as they confidently tackle the challenge at hand and show you how it’s done.


The job of a leader is to define the goal, recognize everyone’s capabilities, give them a chance to use them, and give everyone a bow at the end. And that’s what a conductor … a good one anyway … actually does.

Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.