Being Conducted

In the exquisitely beautiful and lyrical Swedish film As It Is in Heaven, Michale Nyqvist plays the fictional character Daniel Dareus, an internationally famous conductor. Although Daniel is in great demand for his ability, he is unfulfilled—he feels as though he has never facilitated the musicians in the orchestra to play to the best of their abilities.

As conductors go, he is a relatively young man; but at the pinnacle of his career, he suffers a heart attack. He retires to the small Swedish village of his boyhood. His name has changed since he was a boy, so no one in the village knows he is a native. He takes on the role of the choir director in the village church. As he assumes the role, the choir is undisciplined and mediocre.

In an early encounter with the choir, Daniel explains to them the importance of listening to the music: “Everything begins with listening. Imagine that all music all ready exists. It’s up here all around vibrating ready to be taken down. It’s all a matter of listening, of being ready to take it down. Every person has their own unique tone, their own individual tone.” The choir is puzzled but receptive to these ideas.

As I listened to Daniel, my mind flashed to one of my favorite passages from Polly Berends’ classic book on parenting Whole Child, Whole Parent, in which she explains why a good parent is like a good conductor:

On the surface it seems that the music is produced by the power of the conductor to tell everyone what to do and when to do it. He may have to do that, but that is not what makes the music. A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient. The conductor conducts by being conducted.

In the movie and in life there is an important prerequisite for being conducted—a price that most people are unwilling to pay. Near the end of the movie, Daniel explains to his former manager why he found  fulfillment as the choir director in a small village while he never found it as a conductor of world-famous orchestras. He says of his choir: They love me and I love them.

Love is the prerequisite for being able to listen. Yes, the love of the music; but importantly, love for each other. Throughout the movie members of the choir gradually surrender past hurts and petty grievances that they have held towards each other. Without surrendering, they would not be able to hear the music. Notice, they must subtract, rather than add, to their lives. The act of surrender was a decision that, one-by-one, they each had to make. Yet, each choice for Love made it easier for someone else to make the same choice.  Daniel could not make that decision for them. For all of us, listening is natural once we get our egos out of the way.

As a leader, Daniel himself had to make the same decision for Love. Indeed, Daniel is the one who goes first; and that decision makes all the difference in his life and the lives of everyone in his childhood village. To our ego, the choice for Love seems very complex—there seem to be layers and layers of the intractable “story of me” to be dismissed. Yet as the film reveals, the choice can be made in an instant and requires nothing other than our willingness. What choice can be simpler?  What choice can be important? What choice can be more rewarding?


2 Responses to Being Conducted

  1. Lyn says:

    Hi Barry,

    Your piece touches on one of the weaknesses of “cookbook” management training: the emphasis on “active listening” as a technique, as opposed to getting down to our fundamental motivations of why we need to listen to each other. It’s easy to get a technique wrong (ehhhr–guilty as charged :-). On the other hand, consciously respecting and wanting to express gratitude to our colleagues (and loved ones!) gives us a strong basis for wholehearted listening that the speaker will feel.

    Another great post–thank you!


  2. Thanks, Lyn. This is really good news isn’t it? We don’t have to get the technique exactly right–instead we can begin with the right state-of-mind.

    How often, as you say, that we focus on the technique (the frame if you may) and lose sight of the picture.

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