Servant Leadership and Conducting the Ultimate Job Negotiation

The Met’s James Levine puts his adaptive leadership skills to the test

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Servant Leadership and Conducting the Ultimate Job Negotiation

For over three decades, James Levine guided New York’s Metropolitan Opera, turning it into one of the world’s premier arts institutions. His flair formerly as Music Director, and now Music Director Emeritus, is matched by creative and adaptive leadership skills that have allowed him to shape the growth and success of the Met. In recent years, Levine has been slowed by health problems as the opera looks to the future. Levine’s negotiations over his own place at the storied institution show how a lifetime of servant leadership can help in the most challenging negotiations.

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

Servant Leadership and Negotiations

Servant leadership is a powerful, but often under-recognized leadership style, characterized by a personal devotion to an idea, cause, or institution rather than to an executive. Like the Pope’s recent initiative to combat climate change, it is often associated with cultural and religious figures who aspire to change something bigger than themselves.

While this may sound like any leadership role, servant leadership places the weight of success on creating a sustainable culture among many stakeholders in ways that top-down leadership often does not. Servant leadership roles often create unique pressures, creating the need for consensus through carefully sequenced steps over long periods of time in order to adapt to the needs of many different constituencies. As a result, servant leadership hones negotiating skills that executives with outright authority might neglect.

A Lifetime of Little Negotiations and Big Success

When Levine took the baton as principal conductor at the Met in 1972, he was just 28 years old. A rising star in classical music, the young maestro threw himself into redefining the often-inconsistent city opera. One musician at a time, he rebuilt the Met. As reported recently in The New York Times, Levine introduced new programming and reintroduced long-neglected classics. When budgets were tight, he put the full force of his creative energy toward designing exceptional productions on a shoestring. He created an educational pipeline for identifying and supporting new musicians, strengthened old relationships, forged new ones, and bucked trends.

Each step required its own set of negotiations, and his efforts paid off, gaining a dedicated following. The result is an unparalleled arts institution with an annual budget of $300 million.

Yet, in recent years, Levine’s health has declined. Attempting to lead both the Met and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he was forced to cancel performances, take a two-year hiatus from conducting, and ultimately give up his position in Boston. At the outset of 2016, Levine found himself negotiating his own future at the Met, but while pressure was increasing to step down, he was reluctant to step aside. Describing his work as a collaboration with the institution, he said that he felt he still had work to do.

A Servant Leader’s Job Negotiation

Turning his servant leadership skills toward his own negotiations, Levine has skillfully employed a handful of negotiating tactics that have served him well. Early on, he set a firm, “anchored” position, making it clear that he was not ready to go. Instead of simply saying, “I will not be moved,” he made sure to link his position to the larger issues that matter at the Met by highlighting the value of his creative partnership to the institution. By doing so, he shifted the conversation away from being what negotiation experts call a zero-sum discussion about whether he would stay or go.

Instead, Levine and Met directors were able to create mutual agreement on a new range of possibilities—a zone of possible agreement (ZOPA). To do so, they were willing to come up with creative, adaptive alternatives. Levine agreed to consider, and ultimately accepted, an arrangement where he would continue on as the Music Director Emeritus, a position the Met did not have at the time. Defining a new role gave both sides the opportunity to move away from an all-or-nothing mindset and assess areas where they share a sense of value about Levine’s continued work at the Met.

Preserving Value in a Time of Transition

As reported in the Times, there was an urgent financial need for the Met to ensure that concerts would not be cancelled, with Levine continuing to press Met directors to allow him to continue. At the same time, two months of talks had led to significant progress, with Levine agreeing to consider some transition if his health prevented his continued presence at the helm. Moreover, the success of Levine’s negotiating skills on behalf of the institution ensured that Met directors entered discussions with him respectfully, with an eye toward the long-term. Their approach lessened the corrosive effect that time-pressures often have on negotiations.

Like conducting an orchestra, the hallmarks of servant leadership are often cumulative, and result from fine-tuning individual negotiating skills, whether they relate to positions and interests, timing, creative wordsmithing, offers, or concessions. Levine’s role may never be the same as it was thirty years ago, but his negotiating skills show how a lifetime of servant leadership can prepare a leader to preserve a lifetime of hard-fought gains and negotiate their own transition at the same time.

Related Leadership Skills Article: The Leadership Styles of “Girls” at the Negotiating Table

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


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