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 Sir Simon Rattle with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during a concert in Abu Dhabi.

AFP/Getty Images

What if you and your colleagues could elect your new boss, choosing from among the finest candidates in the world?

For nearly all employees, it sounds like the stuff of fantasy. For the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, it's just part of the job description.

Picking a new leader, however, turns out to be tough work.

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On Monday morning, the members of the orchestra – considered perhaps the best in the world – met in a secret location to vote for a chief conductor for the first time in more than 15 years.

Hours passed. As the sun set, the deliberations continued. The secret location was revealed: a church in southwest Berlin, a fitting spot for an event that is the equivalent of the papal conclave for the world of classical music.

Then, after 11 hours of discussion, voting and rumours, there was an announcement that the Vatican cardinals might appreciate: for now, no new maestro.

Instead, the orchestra wants to reconvene in a year and vote again, according to the German newspaper Die Zeit.

The lack of result was unprecedented in recent memory. After several rounds of voting, the orchestra was unable to reach a consensus on who should occupy one of the most prestigious positions in music, reports said. And with unity elusive, the orchestra finds itself in uncharted territory.

Choosing a new conductor doesn't happen very often. The legendary Herbert von Karajan led the orchestra for 35 years until 1989. The musicians chose Claudio Abbado as his successor. A decade later, they elected Sir Simon Rattle, who took up the post in 2002.

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic take democracy seriously. They also vote among themselves to select new musicians and offer input into how the institution is run. For some observers, such participation is the key to their success.

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"With this group, every single musician – to put it in business terms – is like a shareholder," said Thomas Grube, the director of a documentary about the orchestra, in a recent interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. "That's an unusual situation that leads to more self-confidence and a greater sense of responsibility."

While the Berlin Philharmonic may be an extreme example of workplace democracy, it's not the only one. Software firm Haufe-umantis, a Swiss subsidiary of a German company, allowed its more than 100 employees to select its chief executive through a vote in 2013. More recently, the staff of The Guardian newspaper held a ballot in February to indicate their preferred candidate for the next editor-in-chief. (Their choice isn't binding, however, but more of a recommendation.)

In Germany, there is also a long tradition, enshrined in law, of employees giving input into business decisions. At any company with more than five employees, workers can form a "Works Council" – a forum, that isn't a union, to communicate suggestions and complaints.

Of course, as Monday's long night in Berlin demonstrated, democracy isn't simple or quick. Before the voting began, the 124 tenured members of the orchestra turned in their cellphones, ensuring that no information would leak out or seep in.

In theory, the world was their oyster: They could cast votes for any living conductor. In practice, the process was a horse race in which several leading candidates had emerged while others appeared to withdraw from contention, citing obligations to their current employers.

The much-beloved current conductor, Sir Simon, is departing in 2018 to direct the London Symphony Orchestra. In seeking to choose a successor, the musicians had to balance considerations of musical approach and temperament, plus their own comfort level with the individual conductors, all of whom have made guest appearances leading the orchestra.

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Their dilemma also revolved around questions of tradition versus innovation and youth versus experience. Sir Simon has excelled at pushing the orchestra in new directions, whether in terms of the music it plays or the way it connects with audiences. (It has introduced a series of online concerts, for instance.) The musicians must decide if they should continue along that path.

For the most part, the potential candidates also seemed to fall into two categories: the under-40 set, viewed as exciting but unproven; and the over-60 set, seen as experienced but slightly stuffy.

One much-discussed candidate was Andris Nelsons, a 36-year-old Latvian who currently directs the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Closer to home was Christian Thielemann, 56, a native Berliner who leads the state orchestra in Dresden. He's renowned for his interpretation of the German classical repertoire but is considered brusque and controversial. ("Democracy has no role in the context of classical music," he once said, a less-than-optimal stance for a candidate in an election.)

Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was also considered to be in the running, but he recently extended his current contract to 2022, a sign that he is committed to staying where he is.

Other frequently touted names included Gustavo Dudamel, a charismatic conductor from Venezuela, and Daniel Barenboim, a renowned Argentine conductor and pianist who lives in Berlin.

For all of the conductors who spent Monday waiting by their phones for a call that never came, there's a silver lining. Within the next year, this unusual exercise in workplace democracy is likely to happen all over again.

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