Sunday, February 1, 2004

Leaders find way to win

Bengals' Lewis, Symphony's Jarvi show how to stimulate great performances

By John Eckberg and Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Bengals coach Marvin Lewis took over a struggling NFL team, putting his management and motivation skills to the test.
(Enquirer file photos)
[IMAGE] The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's Paavo Jarvi has garnered raves for the group's musical performances and strong sales of recordings.
As Greater Cincinnati prepares for its future culturally, socially and in economic terms, the community looks within for vision, inspiration and, perhaps most important, leadership.

Everyday actions by teachers, business leaders, elected officials and so many others set the tone.

They do it on the athletic field, or in the finest halls of music. But they do it with a style of leadership and management philosophy that are deep-rooted in personal commitment.

Like that of Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.

More than 4,000 players and two decades later, Idaho State University athletic trainer Phil Luckey still has vivid memories of Lewis' playing days and personal style.

Luckey, a trainer at Idaho State for 37 years, says he had a hunch even then about Lewis' leadership abilities, the management skills that catapulted him into an elite group of 32 head coaches in the National Football League.

Lewis was a linebacker for the Idaho State Bengals in 1976-80. After graduation, he did a two-year stint as an assistant coach. He left a lasting impression in his first taste of management.

"Marvin was a hard worker," Luckey says. "He was sincere and when he told you something, you believed him. To me, that's a leader."

Twenty-two years after leaving Idaho State, Lewis found himself on the sidelines for a struggling Cincinnati football team, his management and motivation skills put to the test. While the team didn't make it to today's Super Bowl, it ended years of negative results. Under Lewis' leadership, the Bengals, at 8-8, were no longer losers.

A few blocks up Elm Street from Paul Brown Stadium, Paavo Jarvi has brought the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to the brink of greatness with ovations for its musical performances and strong sales of recordings.

Jarvi, 41, the symphony's passionate music director, also led the group through a 2003 season of critically acclaimed performances across the eastern United States and in Japan, while ticket revenue in the first two years of his term rose seven percent despite the Sept. 11 attacks, civil unrest in Cincinnati and an economic downturn.

The maestro defines "leadership."

"The most powerful leaders are the ones who really are convincing about what they're preaching, and who have a mission that they passionately believe in - not a party line that they are following," says Jarvi.

When Jarvi is in town, electricity fills historic Music Hall with an enthusiasm that has galvanized musicians and symphony supporters. And although the CSO, like its peers nationwide, has financial challenges, it is clear that a buzz about the symphony is growing.

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"You want to go to the symphony now," says Sandra Rivers, head of accompanying at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and a board member of the symphony. "Being a musician, I go backstage, and the musicians are excited. It's not a job; you're creating something. And he (Jarvi) is such an amazing musician."

The common denominator for Lewis and Jarvi is a quality that business managers, elected officials, teachers, military officers and others envy: leadership that stimulates great performances. To reach this outcome, they must make tough decisions and provide inspiration and direction.

Lewis, 45, and Jarvi share another distinction. They will be honored at the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau's annual Business Outlook luncheon Wednesday at the Westin Hotel downtown. The bureau cited their leadership as a patina for their organizations, supporters and the community's vision of itself as a place to work and live.

Excellence and profit

Throughout the NFL season, win or lose, Marvin Lewis, had The Look: a hungry sideline face that telegraphed to fans his will to win. The competitor in Lewis wants desperately to be on the field for today's Super Bowl; the leader in him knows that, with patience, it could happen someday.

Companies face the same challenges, says Matthew May, author of Absolute Impact: The Drive for Personal Leadership ($17.95 - Peloton). Line up five companies that have identical talent, and a strong leader will make a difference in performance, says May, who has consulted on leadership issues for Dial Corp., Hyundai Motor America, J.D. Power & Associates, Nissan and Toyota Motor.

"The best leaders decide to win the war with what they have," says May, a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and chief learning officer of Aevitas Learning, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. "I call it an appreciative eye, a singular ability to find and bring out the best in their players."

A good conductor doesn't just direct a musician to play the right notes, May says. Rather, he motivates each player, and that lifts the performance of the orchestra. "In football, talent is everywhere, it's the inspired performance that leads to ticket sales - leads to profits," he says.

For Lewis, the essence of leadership is all about trajectory, and time management.

"You have to set direction and when the direction is wrong, you've got to fix it," says Lewis.

The coach offered public remorse at losses during the season but private appraisals of a player's poor performance, said Rich Braham, veteran Bengals center. Publicly, Lewis had inspiring words. Privately, he demanded excellence.

It might have been a sound season for everybody else, but not for Lewis.

"There's not enough time," Lewis says when asked about ambition and excellence. "You can't go back and mend that, fix that. It's too hard to be successful in the NFL and probably any business if you're always throwing good money after bad. ... You have to get things right the first time. You don't get another chance."

Karl Corbett, co-founder of Sasha Corp. of West Chester and a consultant whose company has coached 125 senior executives in recent years, had no doubt about Lewis' leadership capabilities when Corbett learned what the coach did at season's end: he gave each player an individualized sheet of expectations for the off-season.

It flagged critical days, key meetings, when camps will start and end, as well as how the physicals, therapy and personal workouts would occur. "The more we counsel, the more we've found the most important thing a leader can communicate is clear expectations," said Corbett. "If a leader assumes people know what they're supposed to do but it isn't detailed, people will make up their own course and the expectations will match up only through dumb luck."

On-stage, off stage

While Lewis' team sweats in orange-and-black in front of thousands of screaming fans, at Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine, Jarvi's orchestra delivers blistering performances of Shostakovich and Sibelius that end with standing ovations. When he is not conducting, he finds his way to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to stump for the orchestra in classrooms or to guest-conduct student orchestras.

"I can tell you from the students' perspective, when you mention Paavo's coming, it's a different voltage," says Douglas Lowry, dean of the conservatory. "There are undoubtedly many aspects of great leadership, but there is one thing all great leaders have, and that is the power of engagement."

Engagement takes many forms. While it is the board of directors that manages finances, Jarvi is keenly aware of the leadership role he plays in the financial security of the symphony. A March tour of six Florida cities is, in part, a scouting trip for donors.

The idea, Jarvi says, is to "remind all the important citizens of Cincinnati who have migrated to warmer lands that there is a wonderful symphony orchestra at home that needs support."

Great leaders pay attention to such details, says Robert Gandossy, the Global Leader for Hewitt Associates Talent and Organizational Consulting Arm. "Little things matter," says Gandossy, co-author of Leading the Way (Wiley: $29.95). "Symbolism is an important part of a leader's message. People every day talk about actions speaking louder than words but for far too many organizations, whether football teams or large organizations, people are confused by what is said as opposed to what is done."

Neil Hensley has seen the symbolism at work. Hensley, who works for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, traveled with the symphony to Japan in November and brought back hope of a community bonus from the CSO's rise, evidence that leadership on the orchestra stage pays economic dividends as well as artistic ones.

"We are working with a number of companies who turned out to be prospects," Hensley said. "Six or seven companies said that Cincinnati was on the list of cities that they're considering for their U.S. investment."

Are leaders made or born?

Estonian-born Jarvi, who was named for "The Flying Finn," gold medal Olympian Paavo Nurmi, learned at the knee of his father, Detroit Symphony Orchestra maestro Neeme Jarvi. The two are in constant touch about their music.

Jarvi's workday is long, often stretching into the wee hours. Between rehearsals, he plans symphony programs, appears at board meetings and fund-raisers, strategizes on tours and recordings and runs to catch planes. His guest conducting appearances take him from Tokyo to Paris. But like a sales manager on a roadshow, he stays in constant touch with the symphony by cell phone, e-mail and fax.

"He's very demanding. He wants to get it right, there's no question about that. He has a lot of ideas, but if an idea doesn't work, it gets abandoned," said Stacey Woolley, a member of the second violin section for 15 years.

But Jarvi also realizes leadership at the symphony is a two-way proposition, and it requires trust. "It is not a question of telling somebody to do something, but inspiring somebody to give their best. That takes trust. It's trust in those people in front of whom you are. Otherwise, it's an ego trip," he says.

Steve Scott, an Army chief warrant officer 4 and a former teammate of Lewis, believes leaders are born and developed. Today, the 44-year-old native of Miami, Fla. is assigned to Ft. Campbell, Ky. He now flies an Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter over the skies of Iraq for the 101st Airborne Division.

Twenty years ago, he was a cornerback on the Idaho State team that would become a national champion during Lewis' first year as an assistant coach. Scott remembers a game when he complained about play calling - he was dogging the head coach.

Lewis wasted no time cutting him off. "He told me, 'Hey, calm down,' " Scott said via e-mail from Iraq. "I don't think Marvin's advice was meant to curb my enthusiasm for better play calling, but to control the atmosphere on the sideline in the vicinity of the head coach and secondly keep me out of trouble."

Lewis' attributes were obvious two decades ago, Scott says, long before he got to Cincinnati. "His knowledge, skills, and abilities to coach at a higher level were apparent to me then. I would have bet on him to reach the pinnacle."

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