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A Leadership Master Class from a Maestro

What can manufacturing executives learn from choral conductor Robert Shaw? How to hit the right notes, contends former IW senior editor John S. McClenahen.

For more than a century, people have been penning business management books. A select few have become classics in their own times. Many more have been classics only in their authors’ minds.

May I suggest you turn to another kind of classic book, a book about making classical music, specifically The Robert Shaw Reader, edited by Robert Blocker and published by Yale University Press in 2004. I have been reading The Reader off and on during the past few months, and I suggest that you review it too.

Such a suggestion may strike you as strange, presumptuous, even preposterous. For Robert Shaw, during his entire professional career in music, did not manufacture anything. And The Reader is first about music, entirely in Shaw’s own words—the words he used in letters and notes to instruct and inspire, to cajole and to humor the men and women who were members of the choruses he led and the orchestras he conducted.

So what is the manufacturing connection? Robert Shaw in his own realm was a talented executive, a leader in practicing principles of excellence. Principles of excellence not limited to the world of music. Principles that are as applicable in the world of manufacturing today as they were (and are) in the late conductor’s world of voices and instruments.

Here are three that particularly resonate with me:

  1. Arrangement is critical.

    Where talented and well-trained people stand or sit and where their instruments are placed are critical to achieving world-class results. Think (in manufacturing terms) factory floor, workstations and cells as well as the instruments production workers employ.

  2. Teamwork matters.

    One person does not make a chorus, nor do two, three or four people, singing without connection. A chorus is a group of talented and well-trained people participating as a team to produce world-class results. Think (in manufacturing terms) of well-directed production teams who appreciate, at least metaphorically, that it does take an orchestra to perform the Lone Ranger theme (Rossini’s William Tell Overture).

  3. Quality counts.

    A choral work poorly performed insults the ears and questions the integrity of the conductor and the members of the chorus. A product poorly made insults consumers and can totally destroy the positive reputation of its manufacturer.

Principles of excellence. Classically relevant.



This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006. And who, in the mid-1960s, participated in two programs with Robert Shaw.

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