Think at London Business School
Research finds that the drivers of creativity vary by country and culture – so leaders need to know which levers to pull
By Pier Vittorio Mannucci
The only child of two classical musicians, Marin Alsop had aspired to be a conductor for nearly her entire life. After earning her bachelor’s (1977) and master’s (1978) degrees at the Juilliard School in New York City, Alsop became a working musician in New York City, but her childhood dream of conducting was never far from her mind. But, when she applied to programmes to study conducting, her goal felt continually out of reach. Despite multiple applications, “I got rejected from everything,” Alsop explains. “I mean, I couldn’t get into conductor school. I was rejected from Juilliard four times – and I had just earned my master’s there!”
Abandoning the traditional path to the podium, Alsop instead found a mentor and investor, businessman and philanthropist Tomio Taki, who backed her in creating the Concordia Orchestra – which she then conducted. The Concordia Orchestra performed everything from jazz to contemporary pieces and cemented Alsop’s skill and commitment as a conductor. She went on to lead US orchestras in Virginia, Oregon and New York and, by 1999, had expanded her career beyond the US, serving as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In 2001 she was appointed Principal Conductor of England’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
In 2005, the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – one of only 15 major orchestras in the US (none of which had ever been led by a woman) – announced Alsop’s appointment as Music Director, beginning in the 2007 season. Her lifelong dream of leading a major orchestra had been achieved, but things quickly turned sour as some musicians and board members raised a public outcry in response to Alsop’s hiring. In a public letter her detractors raised complaints about her technique, her ear and the alleged flaws of the selection process, from which they felt they’d been excluded.
The comments about Alsop’s performance and skill were unfounded, and deeply hurtful. “I’d worked so hard and it felt like people who didn’t even know me were out to destroy me. They were saying I didn’t have a good ear, I didn’t know how to rehearse... all things that are just completely false,” Alsop recalls. She tried not to take the attacks personally – although, of course, they were deeply personal – and saw the negative reaction as “a manifestation of a really dysfunctional institution” where the musicians were angry at management and felt cut out of the conductor selection process. She believed she could lead the orchestra successfully if she could figure out how to bring the musicians around.
Some advised Alsop to decline the role because the negativity and hassle would not be worth it. On a personal level, she was tempted to agree, exclaiming, “Gosh, who needs this?”
At the same time, she felt the weight of the appointment, both personally and historically: “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I have this historic appointment as the first woman to lead a professional, full-time American orchestra.’ Am I going to say, ‘Nah, I think I won’t do it,’ because I feel intimidated?”
Instead of walking away, Alsop decided to meet privately with the orchestra before any formal decision was made or announced. She remembers, “I came into their rehearsal and they were not particularly expecting me to be there. I told them that I actually already had concerns about the job, including the orchestra’s debt level and low attendance – but that they were also a talented and deeply musical orchestra.
“And I said to them, ‘I don’t know all of you and you definitely do not know me. And what you’ve done has hurt me deeply. If I’m going to take this job, I will need to get over that – but we need to meet in the middle.’ Then I proceeded to tell them all of the ways that, if I came, I would help this orchestra and help these musicians – but if they were not willing to work with me, that was on them.”
At the end of the meeting, the musicians agreed to “meet in the middle.” Alsop’s appointment was formally announced – but she knew she had a lot of work to do. Rather than try to win the musicians over or get them to “like” her, she focused on how to meet their needs while being honest and transparent: “The musicians were not very pleased that I’d been appointed and I didn’t think it would be effective to [try to] win them over by somehow getting them to like me more. Instead, I decided that the best way to forge a relationship was to show them that I cared about, and would help create, success for them.
“I tried to understand why they were so distressed and that brought me to a place of real compassion for them and their situation, but it also drove me to try to create great success for them. I think we’ve been able to create great success and to make it a more humane and joyful work environment. If the environment is devoid of joy, I think it’s also devoid of success.
“So, I went right to work, worked on their rhythm, sound, blend, discipline... everything. We worked so hard; every minute of every rehearsal was focused on their growth and success as musicians.”
Alsop eventually learned more about the “backlash” that had followed the news of her selection to lead the BSO.
The reports that nearly all the musicians were opposed to her taking the role turned out to be false. Instead, a few detractors had purported to speak out – publicly, inaccurately and with serious consequences – for the entire orchestra.
‘It’s very important to be super-prepared. But when you don’t know something, it’s crucial to be able say “I don’t know”’
In 2013, nearly seven years into her tenure at the BSO, Alsop’s contract was renewed through to August 2021. The head of the orchestra’s players’ committee issued a statement congratulating her on the extension, announcing, “BSO musicians are happy for the stability that this development signals to our orchestra, and for the growth that will now occur… Marin’s contract renewal demonstrates the commitment that BSO leadership has to continue providing world-class symphonic music.”
The orchestra now confronted new challenges – which meant that Alsop faced new leadership challenges. Throughout her tenure, she has repeatedly referred back to her own theory leadership: “You can be autocratic and you can be frightening. I mean, I guess if that’s your nature, that’s who you have to be, then you do that. But I really believe that you can be a great leader and be compassionate. That’s what I try for.
“There’s also something about musicianship and knowing your craft. It’s very important to be super-prepared. But when you don’t know something, it’s crucial to be able to say, ‘I don’t know’.”
Although things had dramatically improved between Alsop and the musicians, by early 2019 the orchestra was in trouble. Management proposed cost-cutting measures that would drastically shorten the season (and reduce musician compensation).
By the spring, contract negotiations were at a stalemate and, on 30 May, the symphony cancelled its entire summer concert series. In June, the board of directors voted to lock the musicians out, causing them to lose their entire summer’s pay. The situation worsened in July as an audit showed the orchestra’s finances to be dire. Management maintained its hard line on the shorter season and the musicians took to the picket lines. The Governor of Maryland announced that emergency funding designed to keep the orchestra afloat would not be released. In response, the musicians reached out to major donors and secured a $1 million grant to fund their salaries – which management declined to use. As the dispute continued unresolved, Baltimore residents and observers around the world lamented the situation, often focusing on the crucial role the BSO has played in the civic life of the city.
“Can Baltimore Save Its World-Class Orchestra?” demanded The New York Times, writing, “It teaches music to children in troubled neighbourhoods and helped its city heal after riots. But the Baltimore Symphony is in crisis.”
As their concerts were cancelled one after the other and no pay cheques came home, the BSO musicians nonetheless scheduled and played free concerts for the citizens of Baltimore, with Alsop conducting.
By early September the lockout had been lifted – but the musicians refused to return to work without a contract. Finally, after 16 weeks of fractious dispute, management and the musicians agreed a contract. Days later, Alsop led the opening concert of the orchestra’s 104th season.
Marin Alsop’s time leading the BSO came to a close in August 2021. Over that summer, in her final months with the orchestra, she led a series of three orchestral programmes to mark the conclusion of her 14-year tenure, during which time she had completely transformed the orchestra, both artistically and technically, and created Baltimore’s OrchKids programme, which has been described as “the most impressive education program of any ensemble” in the United States.
At the end of summer 2021, Alsop held the newly created role of Music Director Laureate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and had retained her leadership position with the OrchKids organisation.
She remained in the roles of Conductor of Honour of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Chief Conductor and Curator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia Festival, and Director of Graduate Conducting Program at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. Alsop also continued to guest-conduct at leading orchestras across the globe.
“I set out to create success and to do the right thing, by my own moral compass,” she recalls. “And that’s what I did.”
Randall S Peterson is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the LBS Leadership Institute. Carrie Fletcher is a Research Fellow at the Leadership Institute. Vyla Rollins is Executive Director of the Leadership Institute. Find the full case study at the LBS Case Collection.