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Beauty vs. Safety

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

I love this 2-minute video because it gets at the heart of why there is so much risk aversion in organizations. It’s very instructive to watch this rehearsal clip with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the famous Austrian conductor.  But first let me explain what you’re about to see.

There’s an especially awkward and challenging passage for the cellos and Harnoncourt isolates it, asking them to play it alone. These are very fine players and they sharpen their concentration and render an error-free reading. But Harnoncourt is looking for much more than that. “Now move away from Dotzauer,” he says, citing a composer of technical etudes for cello. His remark draws embarrassed laughter from the cellists. He’s nailed them for merely playing it safe. Harnoncourt insists on imagination and risk-taking, urging them to not feel constrained by playing together. Bold musical invention is the higher value. So the four cellists throw themselves into it and, not surprisingly, it’s not so well together. But Harnoncourt is pleased. “Yes,” he says, “now let’s synchronize it a bit.” The musicians laugh. For many conductors playing together is the only priority, but Harnoncourt is treating it as a secondary concern. Their uncomfortable laughter prompts him to describe a painful period, earlier in his career, when he was playing in an orchestra with a conductor who killed the music by demanding uniformity, above all. That experience was so musically exasperating that Harnoncourt actually gives himself credit for not having murdered anyone as a result.

Harnoncourt’s story, infused with the passion of his musical values, inspires the musicians to play with both abandon and discipline, originality and order, taking risks in service of the art.

This video perfectly demonstrates how it is so much easier to judge whether your behavior is in alignment with your co-workers than it is to consider what would add the greatest value. Most workers live in the ever-present but unseen fear that breaking the mold would cause some kind of disaster or attract unwanted attention. And everyone assumes there would be retribution. Therefore, if a culture of inspiration, innovation and constant improvement is to thrive in an organization it must start with the leader, just as it did with Nicholas Harnoncourt in this enlightening video. “Safety and beauty are incompatible.”



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