February 18, 2019
Below is a lesson from a passage from “Leaders: Myth and Reality” by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, Jay Mangone on Leonard Bernstein conducting his last performance, as well as our key learning.
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Leonard Bernstein’s Last Performance
From “Leaders: Myth and Reality”
by Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, Jay Mangone
“So it was fitting that Lenny should conduct his last performances at America’s premier musical education establishment, Tanglewood, in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the music school, the one to which Lenny had given the most time. No video recording of this performance was made, but a sound recording was later released. During the final piece in the program, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the recording is not able to convey the physical and mental strain Lenny was under. While, as always, smartly turned out in his staple summer white jacket and black bow tie (one he had worn for years—while that night it was raining, Tanglewood’s summer festivals were said to bring sunny “Bernstein weather”), he was now a frail man, hunched over, with grayish skin, and unable to conduct with hands much above his waist. The members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—who aside from those of the New York Philharmonic were Lenny’s closest classical colleagues—were so familiar with Lenny leading them that they could by this time almost totally rely on the penetrating flits of his eyes as they moved across the different orchestra sections.
“But in the third movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, with his ninety-one-year-old mother and children watching anxiously in the audience, Lenny, ashen, was seized by a coughing fit, propping himself up against the back of the podium and gasping for breath. His hands wrapped around a red handkerchief to contain the noise; his arm movements halted. Eye contact with the players was broken. But the BSO, true to form, played on. The brass instruments trumpeted with renewed determination, acting as a triumphal tribute to the man who had led them with such vitality for forty-seven years. He had taught them well; and they played on, leaderless. For the fourth and final movement, the players willed him back into position. Agonizingly, Lenny found the breath and energy to lead on. As the symphony came to an end, some in the audience may have guessed that this would be the last ovation they would give to Leonard Bernstein. No matter. As the crowd rose in unison from their seats, Lenny and his orchestra remained in their solemn gaze. Silently facing one other, the maestro and his loyal players continued, the music now just etched in memory, to explore those intricate, often unspoken webs of being and belonging of which we are all a part.”
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- Great leadership is a transfer of energy — leaders give strength to the team and the team strengthens the leader when necessary. We will give each other the strength to power through even when we aren’t sure we have the will or the courage to lead the band.
- True Leadership — Teaching those you lead well so that they can carry on, even when you are not fully present to lead them, and they will carry on with the same grace, passion, and expectation.
- To be the kind of leader that, even in a moment of lacking strength, those you lead feel compelled to “will you back into position.”
- Great leaders not only inspire and engage those they lead, but do so for the recipients of great performance — the community around them.
- “To explore those intricate, often unspoken webs of being and belonging of which we are all a part.” Leadership creates that environment for everyone, the leader and those they lead, to have a strong sense of being and belonging by every day actions and the little things that matter — which create a sense of the larger picture, the sense of “us” vs “me”, and bring about these magnificent performances.
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