Leaders: Lead Like the Great Conductors

When talking about leadership and management coaching, sports analogies are often added for greater effect. Stories of great coaches who have won championship titles fill the business and executive coaching landscape. While these parallels can be powerful, there are others to consider.

lead like a conductor

Perhaps a more meaningful representation of effective management and leadership comes from the world of symphonic music. World-class conductors stand in as good examples of effective leadership. The symbolism abounds. Here are my Top 5.

Lead Like the Great Conductors

1. Generally, the conductor never plays a single note. The actual production of the sound a symphony makes is comprised of individual notes struck by the musicians playing a wide variety of instruments. So, too, it is with business and most organizations.

Yes, conductors get their pictures on the album covers, just like CEOs often do. Yet the contribution of the musicians is just as significant.

Unless your venture is a sole-proprietor model, where you are literally doing everything, the leader must rely on others to turn the cranks, push the wheels, and deliver the goods or services.

Guiding the way is the leader’s primary purpose while others deliver the goods and services.

2. The conductor defines “now”. A composer creates a piece of music, but it is subject to the interpretation of the conductor. Creative adjustments to timing and tempo make the piece come alive. The conductor keeps it steady. His effort keeps the whole orchestra in sync with one another. The conductor’s subtle gestures keep the entire group playing as one. One section out of sync would be a disaster for the piece of work as a whole.

The CEO or senior leader must be able to do the same with their team. Defining “now” is just as vital to an effective work team performance as it is to the New York Philharmonic Symphony. Having an employee or employee group lag behind, or get ahead of, prescribed performance definitions results in less than expected achievement.

3. The conductor keeps his back to the audience when he works. The best leaders are frequently unseen while they work. His/her focus should be on the team at work; keeping an eye on the plan (the music score) while the musicians play. There is no time for letting the audience shower the conductor with praise or applause. While the piece is in motion, all focus is on the orchestra.

When the conductor raises the baton, it is time to be still and wait for the music to begin. All throughout the piece, the conductor stays in motion. Hand movement might range from subtle to big and demonstrative. Regardless, the conductor’s purpose is to focus on the team.

Once the piece is over, the conductor may turn to get a reaction from the crowd.

4. The conductor creates synchronization and harmony, working through dissonance. Admittedly, this is a layman’s commentary. My wife, the musician, might challenge me on the technicalities of this point. Granted, harmony and dissonance are uniquely different aspects of a musical piece. My point is that when all the instruments are in sync and following the arrangement and the conductor, the sound is generally more harmonious than not.

Similar to #2 above, getting sections of the orchestra off tempo or out of sync with the rest of the orchestra creates a sound that is discordant. Go to a symphony performance and listen carefully to the warm-ups. Every musician is operating independently, tuning their instrument, running notes and scales. The joint effort is cacophonous.

As soon as the conductor raises the baton and the work begins, every note falls into its perfect place and harmony is achieved.

The workplace runs like this too. When an office or a shop is working in perfect harmony, there is a buzz that can be heard and even felt. Solid productivity has that buzz. You can just sense the flow of the work effort.

5. Everything is NOT about the conductor’s story. The focus of the great symphonic music is not about the conductor alone. Rather it is about the individual stories that each musician brings to the musical piece. All of the training, rehearsal, and effort the musician puts into mastering their instrument becomes their personal story.

The conductor brings out all of the stories into a merged production of glorious music that the audience can enjoy. Weaving the individual stories, skills, and passion into one master story for the audience to experience is the craft of the conductor.

So too it is with business owners and senior executives. As the ability to lead grows stronger so too will be the ability to better recognize and bring out the strengths of their team. Great leaders inspire their team members and encourage the best parts of their story, skills, and passion to be heard.

Watch the Message

Based on his illustrious 10-year career as an orchestra conductor in Israel, Itay Talgam gives a TED talk about the correlation between conducting a group of musicians with instruments and leading a group of people with ideas. A musical leader conducts his orchestra without words and yet is able to evoke harmony and emotion. Talgam reflects on 6 successful conductors and the strategies they used to make their performances great.

Enjoy the clip.