5 Lessons Learned About Leadership From an Orchestral Conductor

Leadership Development from an Orchestra ConductorI had the privilege of attending a student concert at Lipscomb University last night. I was there to hear a friend, but couldn’t help but observe the conductor; waiving his arms passionately in front of 30 college-aged musicians.

In college, I majored in music education and took several courses in conducting, so I know the mechanics. I’ve learned how to hold the baton, form the patterns, interpret the music, and so on.

What I learned for the first time tonight, however, is that conductors have quite a bit to teach us about leadership:

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Look Foolish

A good conductor will stand on the podium and pour his heart out in front of the ensemble. He will portray the gamut of human emotion in his posture, facial expressions, and body movement. If there were no orchestra and he were alone in the room, he would look like a fool.

However, when we experience the concert and hear the beautiful music, his passion is nothing short of inspiring. If you’re a leader, sometimes you will be at the head of your team casting your vision with every bit of fire and emotion that you can muster. You will bear your soul in the pursuit of your mission.

From the outside, you’ll look foolish. People won’t understand your passion. They won’t see the orchestra that you’re conducting or hear the music that you’re creating. Have faith, because when you accomplish your task and create the change you’ve been seeking, everyone will rejoice in that sound and it will have been worth every wave of the baton.

2. Set The Pace

With the lifting of the baton, an exaggerated deep breath, an affirming expression, and the drop of that first down-beat, the conductor is leading his people through time. With every motion of the baton, he is setting the pace and keeping the rhythm for the entire orchestra. The tempo of the entire piece is under his direction.

In your organization, there will be times for rapid growth. There will also be times for slow deliberation and calculated strategy. As a leader, you are responsible for knowing what those seasons look like and walking your people through them. Just like the conductor, your team will follow your tempo.

3. Dictate the Mood

Small motions and delicate movement in the conductor evoked soft dynamics and tender articulation in the orchestra. Wide-eyed excitement and exaggerated arm swinging evoked a tangible wave of energy and excitement. The conductor was able to dictate the mood of the entire group with his very demeanor.

As leaders, our outward expression is felt much more widely than we know. A certain leader from my military days comes to mind. I’m not afraid to say that this was a very unstable man. Some days he would come in angry at the world, ready to verbally berate anyone who entered his line of sight. Other days, he was as friendly as could be.

On the bad days, a sense of fear and disillusionment would pervade our shop. We would hide from the big bad boss man. Productivity was severely limited and morale was shot. On the good days, we would embrace the temporary break and enjoy a positive work environment. Productivity would get a temporary shot in the arm.

4. Keep Your People on Course

We’ve established that a conductor has great control over the pace and mood of the orchestra. He does not, however, have total control over his musicians. Especially with a student orchestra, things can go awry. The group can rush the tempo, they can play too softly, play too loudly, out of tune, and so on.

This is where the conductor must exercise his ability to restore control and avert total chaos. With expressive hand gestures and exaggerated movement, a great conductor is able to bring his musicians back to the intent of the music and re-establish the course of the performance.

The great thing about the conductor is that he accomplishes all this while the audience is, for the most part, ignorantly following along. They had no idea that there was a problem, because the conductor was able to use his influence to lead the people back to their course before things got out of control.

This applies to all of us leaders. We must constantly be at work to keep our teams, staff, and volunteers on course. We have to anticipate the issues and solve problems while they’re still small. If we can do it right, we can avoid outright disaster and take the shortest path to success.

5. Cue Your Sections

The musicians knew what to do. They had rehearsed and knew their material frontwards and backwards. Still, however, the conductor would cue different sections when it was time for them to make their entrance after an extended break.

Why? Did he not trust each musicians’ ability to count? Not at all.

It is the conductor’s job to lead the group and to ensure all the pieces fit together. We find ourselves in the same boat. We’ve trained our people to know what we need them to do. Sometimes, they just need to be reminded. That’s what coaching is for.

This isn’t not about cracking the proverbial whip. It’s about spurring your people on to do the work that you’ve empowered them to do. If you’re doing your job as a leader, you will continually cue your people when its time for them to shine.

Please do so with grace and encouragement.

Fin (Double Bar-Line)

When it’s all said and done, the conductor turns around to face the audience, smiles, and takes a humble bow. He does it out of great respect and appreciation for the entire crew of musicians standing behind him, keenly aware that he is only one man standing on the shoulders of many great men and women.

As leaders, we are in the same exact position. Sure, we dream the dream, cast the vision, invest the capital, and drive the train. In the end however, when we stand up and take our bows, we are standing on the shoulders of each and every person who helped make our dream a reality.

Don’t be afraid to stand up and take your bow, but never forget to turn around and acknowledge the team that put you on that podium and the incredible God who blessed you with the vision and the resources to change the world.

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