Lessons on leadership from the Conductor

A couple of years ago, I was able to participate in a management meeting with about leaders from across my company.  I have been in the corporate world well over 30 years and have experienced literally hundreds of events and experiences at those events.  However, there was an event at this meeting that impacted me personally more than any experience before or since.  We had a session with a professional orchestra led by Roger Nierenberg, the author of Maestro.  In this session, we were able to experience the key attributes of a good leader from the perspective of the conductor.  What made the experience amazing was that we actually sat in the orchestra beside and among the instrumentalists.  We were able to observe the conductor from the viewpoint of the instrumentalists and experience how his leadership as a conductor made the difference to the music.

There were several observations from this experience that have stayed with me even two years after the event.  Let’s take a look and see if these resonate with you either as a leader or member of a team with a leader.

The conductor (or good leader of people) must:

  1. Have a vision for the end result – the conductor must have a good sense for what he/she plans to achieve in the end.  It is amazing how different a single score of music can be depending upon the vision and interpretation of the conductor.  Knowing where you want to go is critically important for a leader.  And, communicating that vision to your team will help them understand why you do what you do.
  2. Be visible – the conductor must be visible to every musician in the orchestra.  Everyone must be able to see the conductor’s instructions for pace, volume, and energy.  In the same way, a good leader is visible to the team members.  Certainly, he/she must not be overbearing.  However, allowing every team member to routinely have contact with the leader is important to ensure you remain “on the same page”.
  3. Understand the capabilities of the team – the conductor cannot ask for more than the individual or collective musicians are capable.  It is possible that a high school orchestra could play the same piece as a professional orchestra.  However, the conductor cannot ask for the high school musicians to play with the same level of competence as the professional musicians.  Knowing how much you can expect and when to stretch your team members is important to ensure that expectations from all parties align.
  4. Work with team members individually – the conductor in our session spent some time with individual musicians refining and perfecting the approach or timing for certain elements of the piece.  This individual time was important to create the musical vision of the conductor.  As leaders, it is often important that we connect one-on-one with team members.  This will help ensure that we are aligned on vision, limitations, timing, hurdles, and approaches.  It also helps create a sense of partnership that is important for success.
  5. Be emotionally connected with the team – the conductor must express the proper level of emotion into the musical piece as needed to obtain a good final result.  In our session, the conductor spent considerable time demonstrating his commitment to the process.  As leaders, we must invest in the team and the process.  Team members must see our personal commitment.  We must be personally involved if we expect a great result.
  6. Blend the various parts into the end result – the conductor must spend time ensuring that the individual pieces and parts blend together well.  For example, we saw one demonstration where the violins were perfectly aligned as a subteam and played their part perfectly.  However, when they combined with the woodwinds, some time and effort was needed to ensure that they blended together well.  This blending process occurred throughout the orchestra until all were perfectly aligned and mixed.  The same occurs with our teams.  We cannot assume that if the individual parts perform well, the end result will be good.  We need to take the time to ensure that the efforts of one component are blending well with the others.
  7. Deal with wrong notes – the conductor must not accept wrong notes.  Failing to deal with wrong notes or off-key violins will result in a bad final performance.  In the same way, leaders must not allow “wrong notes” to continue.  Whether these wrong notes are people, perceptions, performance, or processes, they must be dealt with – the earlier, the better.
  8. Set the pace – the conductor alone sets the pace for the orchestra.  You can observe how the movement of a simple white stick can change the tempo from slow to fast to loud… just with the movement.  The good leader also sets the pace for the team.  The team members often look to the leader for hints on timing, objectives, etc.  Thus, good leaders must recognize this and re-set the pace and activities, when needed.
  9. Motivate the members and team – the conductor was constantly praising members for good work.  This praise was contagious and led to a seemingly energized orchestra.  In the same way, good leaders recognize and acknowledge regularly the good work of his/her team members.  It is important for all of us that we feel that our efforts are important and valued.
  10. Share the success of the team – the conductor was quick to praise his orchestra members in our session.  Sharing the team’s success is an important leadership attribute that is often forgotten.

At the end of this session, we were allowed to sit anywhere in the orchestra we wanted or to stand on the podium with the conductor.  The orchestra then played, concert-style, the entire piece that was used to illustrate the important elements of conducting and leadership.  It was an amazing experience to sit among world-class musicians playing this masterpiece by Mozart and observe how all the key leadership principles had driven the final result.  One of the movements played that day was Mozart’s No. 34, second movement which can be heard at the link below:


Have a magical day!  And, remember, this is the only day we’re promised.  If we get another day tomorrow, we’ll look at Lessons on Teamwork from the Orchestra.


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