A Leadership Master Class from a Maestro

Feb. 12, 2015
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.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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