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Leadership Lessons from the Orchestra Conductor

Morag Barrett, August 7, 2017


Leadership Lessons from the Orchestra Conductor

There is no doubt that any musical performance can be electrifying when everyone is playing in harmony. Yet it only takes one person to be off-key and out of tune and the performance can be ruined for all, performers and audience alike. Performing as part of an ensemble provides a powerful analogy to leadership in business. A symphony orchestra is a real-world example of teamwork, collaboration, and leadership in action.

As an amateur musician (currently the principal bassoonist for the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra), here are four leadership lessons that I have learned from more than 30 years of playing music and performing with symphony orchestras in Europe and America:

1.Have a clear vision. The conductor has a clear vision for each piece of music. They have a musical score that provides the detailed, line by line (instrument by instrument) road map of what each musician should be doing at any point in the performance.

Leadership Insight: How clearly do you understand the vision for the team, and how that vision supports the business strategy? As a leader, you need to understand your team’s direction and purpose, and identify key goals and measures of success.

2.Clarify roles and responsibilities. The orchestra has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Though the conductor is often a musician, they don’t step in and play an instrument.

Leadership Insight: Is everyone clear on the roles and responsibilities of the team? Are decisions made at the appropriate level with the right people, or are they continually referred to you.

3. Provide coaching and feedback. A conductor isn’t just there to keep everyone on time. They also act as the team coach, ensuring they get the best out of the individual and collective performance of the orchestra. They provide encouragement, direction, and redirection as needed.

Leadership Insight: Learning is an important aspect to successful leadership. How well are you communicating the progress of your team? Are you coaching and giving feedback in a way that builds the confidence and capability of the team? As you are providing coaching and feedback to your team members, don’t forget to also focus on your own learning!

4. Lead from the front and be visible. The conductor is visible and stands on a podium. This is so everyone in the orchestra can see them to provide the appropriate visual cues to ensure we come in on time – not because they don’t trust us to count our bars of rest, but because they have our back and want to ensure we are successful.

Leadership Insight: As a leader, your words and actions are always being scrutinized and analyzed. Are your communications clear and consistent? Are you anticipating the needs of your team and indicating when you need them to step up and participate? Don’t just pay attention to the big messages. Be as diligent with the smaller motions and subtle messages you may be communicating.

In the same way as musicians and conductors spend time mastering their instruments, a leader needs to practice both the ‘what and how’ of leadership. In doing so, you may just find yourself delivering a leadership performance alongside a team of performers that results in a standing ovation.

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