How To Tell Your Boss It's Time To Go


"Speak truth to power." Of all the advice given to new managers, these four words may be the hardest to carry out. Communicating upwards is risky. One never knows if the recipient will listen with respect or blame the messenger. How should you deliver tough news to your boss? Hopefully, with the same boldness and creativity shown by a prince's servant nearly 250 years ago.

Franz Joseph Haydn enjoyed his position as Kappelmeister (Director of Music) for the Austro-Hungarian Prince, Nicholas Esterhazy. The prince was a demanding employer, requiring an opera, symphony or other ensemble performance nearly every single day, but he was also an enthusiastic and appreciative patron of the arts, which made his court one of the most musically exciting in all of Europe.

Prince Nicholas divided his time between two grand residences—the ancestral palace in Eisenstadt and a new summer estate on the shore of Lake Neusiedl, which the Prince named Esterhaza. During the summer of 1772, Esterhaza was full of performers—musicians, singers, dancers, costume makers and set builders—and Haydn worked day and night producing entertainment for Nicholas and his guests. As the season drew to a close, everyone expected the court to pack up and return to the palace in Eisenstadt. But, that year, September turned to October, and October to November. The schedule of operas and symphonies didn't slacken, and the Prince gave no signs of departing.

Finally, the members of the orchestra approached Haydn with an urgent request. Would he intercede on their behalf and convince Prince Nicholas to end the summer concert season? It had been seven months, they desperately missed their families and needed to return home. Haydn was sympathetic but understood that he had a problem. As Kappelmeister, he was responsible for the well-being of the musicians who worked for him, but also tasked with providing musical entertainment for the court—two responsibilities now directly in conflict.

How best to convince the prince that it was time to go: Should he send a letter? Ask for a personal meeting? Haydn's solution was daring, creative, and made musical history.

On a late November evening Prince Nicholas, his family, guests and royal officials, assemble in the Great Hall at Esterhaza to hear the first performance of a new symphony composed by Franz Joseph Haydn. The music begins forcefully and ranges with drama and excitement for the next twenty minutes—a musical tour de force. As the symphony comes to a galloping finish, however, something unusual happens. The music stops in mid-phrase. Silence.

The musicians begin to play again, but this time with a slow, almost plaintive melody. After a few seconds the oboe and horn players put down their instruments, blow out the candles on their music stands and quietly walk away. Then, the bassoon player does exactly the same thing—as does the bass player. Gradually the orchestra becomes smaller and smaller and the light dimmer and dimmer as more players blow out their candles and retire. Finally, it is only the concertmaster Luigi Tomasini and Haydn on their violins, playing soft 16th-note triplets that sound like a clock winding down. Then, they too lean over, blow out their candles and leave. The symphony ends in silence and darkness.

Haydn holds his breath, but Prince Nicholas hears the message in the music. It is reported that he turned to those assembled and said, "If they leave, then we must leave as well." The next day he orders his court and musicians to return to Eisenstadt.

The "Farewell" Symphony, as it is now known, is a musical masterpiece for reasons that have nothing to do with its hidden message. But I think it deserves its reputation, just as much, for the enlightened leadership of its creator. If Haydn were evaluated as a manager here's where I think he acted with foresight and intelligence:

He listened to his direct reports.

Haydn took responsibility for the musicians who worked for him. When approached with a serious concern he cared enough to put his own job on the line for those who were unable to advocate for themselves.

He got commitment from all stakeholders.

By directly participating in delivering the message to Prince Nicholas, the musicians in Haydn's orchestra took equal responsibility for the outcome.

The way he communicated stood out from every other request.

The unusual ending to his new symphony got the prince's attention in a way that a letter or petition never would have.

He made it possible for the recipient to save face.

Haydn knew his boss well enough to anticipate that Nicholas would understand a subtle message—no need to shame—yet he presented it in public to emphasize the seriousness of his request.

When speaking truth to power is it better to be direct or clever? Did Haydn come up with an effective (albeit unusual) way to send such a message, or was he protecting himself by being vague? What do you think?

Published here on
August 11, 2017