The Leadership Temperament: Is Bullying ever OK?

Is there ever a time when a leader can behave as a bully and get away with it, be forgiven for it, and even be praised for it?  There are some obvious candidates for this in world politics; Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un for example.  However, what about in more modest walks of life, such as your workplace, your client’s organisation, your child’s school, or your social activities? And what about the role of followers in these scenarios.

We spend a lot of time and resource, as a business school, trying to ensure that leadership behaviours are ethical, authentic, transformational, and are formed by positive motivations to get the best out of people and to form strong, fruitful and effective relations.  Unfortunately, not all leaders have the benefit of these learning interactions and believe that their way is perfectly acceptable in order to get things done. There are many followers who are willing to let them get away with it.

One particular group of leaders come to mind when I think of this phenomenon; those of artistic and particularly musical groups. In a Forbes article from 2015, ‘Leadership and the Art of Orchestra Conducting’, Shellie Karabell[1] takes us into a masterclass in leadership as experienced through the Merck Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Heinzel.   Mr Heinzel notes that… ‘I must take these people and give them the feeling that they are important to me’, otherwise risking that people will treat it like just a job and be gone. Parallels are drawn between the orchestra and organisations.  The orchestra has different sections, each with their leader, who form the Executive Team. Mr Heinzel distributes leadership to these key people and works through them as leaders of their particular team. He wants to give his orchestra space, as experts, to inspire and empower, to give their best to make the piece that they are playing is sublime. A talk given by Haris Babačić (Macedionia)[2] in 2017, examined different conductors through Goleman et al’s (2004) Six Emotional Leadership Styles[3], giving examples for each, showing that conductors can be visionary, pace-setting, coaching and democratic. 

What, however, of others? There are many leaders of musical groups, orchestras, choirs, ensembles who do not treat their players/singers with such respect. There are numerous examples of musical leaders who shout (not a problem in itself if the shouting is more general), bully, embarrass, coerce and belittle their musicians. Moreover, there are many followers (the members of the orchestra or choir) who will stand by and let these things happen, or worse, condone the behaviour as ‘artistic temperament’ and believe that somehow makes the person a better musician.  This behaviour should not be tolerated in organisations and should not be tolerated in other settings, even if these are non-professional.  Organisational parallel examples of this sort of behaviour might be Philip Green, Robert Maxwell or Steve Jobs. They attract great loyalty from some, but in general run a very toxic ship.

Photo by Gabriel Santos Fotografia on Pexels.com

How can it be acceptable that musical leaders or conductors will have their members in tears for making a mistake, force them to leave if they speak in rehearsal, belittle someone’s ability or erroneously (or differentially) call their commitment into question.  Quite often the excuse given is that if the behaviour is tackled the leader will leave and ‘we can’t afford to lose them’. This is no reason to tolerate individuals’ mental health being affected by this behaviour.  Of course, the member could leave to protect themselves, but why should they have to? This kind of leadership is toxic wherever it is exercised.  So why is ‘artistic temperament’ used as an excuse and accepted by so many?  Whatever the setting, good leadership behaviour is a right and an expectation.  Poor behaviours do not need to be tolerated by anyone.

Rather than just rehearse a long-standing problem, it is important to look at some possible remedies here? Remedies that people in professional and amateur musical organisations could easily and widely adopt. Should these leaders undergo leadership education in order to take on such roles? Should the selecting committees insist on some form of leadership charter from their leaders?  Should members of the group sign a ‘whistleblowing pledge’ to support each other if someone is being singled out for mis-treatment?  Most importantly, should it be made clear to both the toxic leader and to the choir members by a strong chair and committee, that such behaviour is not OK, just because this person ‘has an artistic temperament’, and that they should call out such behaviour, rather than stand by and see people belittled and bullied? 

Let us be able to enjoy music making together as groups striving towards a common vision and goal, with due respect for each other and in harmony. 

Professor Claire Collins, Henley Business School


[1] KARABELL, S. 2015. Leadership and the Art of Orchestra Conducting [Online]. Forbes. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelliekarabell/2015/01/10/leadership-and-the-art-of-orchestra-conducting/#24413f4171f5 [Accessed 27 July 2019].

[2] BABACIC, H. 2017. Leadership styles through the actions of great conductors [Online]. pdf. Available: file:///C:/Users/les07cec/Downloads/Leadership%20through%20the%20actions%20of%20great%20conductors.pdf [Accessed 27 July 2019].

[3] GOLEMAN, D., BOYATZIS, R. E. & MCKEE, A. 2003. The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership, London, Little Brown.

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