What Conductors Can Teach Us About Leadership

by James on September 14, 2009

Conductors are Great LeadersEffective leadership is important but it’s also hard. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to do it. It’s personal. I’ve seen many styles and almost all have a place. It depends on the situation and the personalities of the leader and those being led.

In general, I’ve observed two leadership styles in business and in life. One quite common and one not so much. The first kind of leader believes they have to protect their position and that others hold their success against them. No one is to be trusted. Respect is earned grudgingly, never given freely. They keep back information, are notorious for being passive aggressive and generally don’t play well with others. Command and control are their princes. Hierarchy is their castle.

This article is for managers who practice the other style. Managers who have the confidence to be open to ideas and contributions regardless of source. Their confidence also allows them to hear and accept criticism. And, if the feedback is fairly given, if it takes the team to a better place, they will accept and acknowledge its truth and incorporate the feedback into the plan, without concern that they will be perceived as weak. Credit is broadly distributed and all are respected without regard for position.

The first type is, I’m sorry to say, quite common and often achieves considerable success by focusing solely on short-term goals. The second approach is often criticized as “soft,” usually by managers who pursue the first style, but don’t be fooled. If given a chance, the “softer” approach is much more likely to bring innovation and growth to your organization. And, if you had the choice, who would you rather be led by? Well, so would your employees.

So now the question is,

“If I’m the second type, how can I do a better job? How do I become a better manager?”

Conductors Are Great Leaders

You can learn a lot by watching how conductors lead their orchestras. When I was a music student, many, many years ago, I had the good fortune to play in several orchestras led by excellent conductors. I learned a lot from them, things I use every day in business and in life. It’s the approach that works for me and it may for you. Look for and foster the characteristics of a conductor in yourself, in your employees and in any hires you are considering.

Conductors focus their ego on the orchestra.

A conductor draws the best from the musicians in the orchestra by providing clear direction and by creating the environment where their talents can make the music better, an environment where they can shine. While the conductor is clearly the leader, their back is to the audience, so it isn’t about what they can do, it’s about what the orchestra can do. The great conductors focuses their egos on the orchestra’s success.

Conductors are active listeners.

Active listening is an important part of being an effective conductor. It is also important to business success. Listening is something we do all the time, take for granted actually, but great conductors are great listeners. How you listen to colleagues, to customers, to yourself is key. Are you just there or is listening a conscious activity? Are you thinking about what you want to say or about what is being said? A conductor listens with their eyes. They see what the music and musicians are and should be doing. Do you listen with your eyes?

Conductors conduct with empathy.

A conductor consider all points of view. They need to think like the individual musicians, to sit in their chairs, to understand how their part fits into the music being performed. Think about your team members’ backgrounds and situations, and yours, and how it could be influencing their and your perspectives. Engage team members with your eyes and with your questions. Don’t immediately judge what they say; consider their points of view or comments from a their perspective. When you lead, lead with empathy.

Conductors don’t stifle individuality.

Recognize that team members will have their own styles. Great conductors adjust the performance to suit the individual styles of the musicians they are leading. Adjusting to team members’ styles, rather than forcing them to match your style, makes them feel comfortable with you. If they are comfortable, if they aren’t fighting to make their style work with yours, the team can focus on producing great work.

Conductors are self aware.

Leaders often underestimate the impact they have. A conductor can signal a whole section of the orchestra with a glance. The team is paying attention. Listen to yourself. Carefully consider the words you choose. Are they designed to draw out the conversation or close it down? Are you being judgmental or are you communicating openness to dissent and discussion?

Are you talking too much? A key to effective leadership is keeping your mouth shut. A pause in the conversation isn’t always a bad thing. Watch the person you are talking to. Listen with your eyes. Are they thinking about the discussion? Are they formulating a comment, a question, a contribution? Let them finish. Don’t immediately attempt to fill the space. Let the conversation develop at its pace. You will be amazed at what you can learn if you are paying attention and not talking.

Conductors make music, not noise.

Dissonance is what makes music interesting. Without it there isn’t any drama; if there’s no drama, it’s boring. Conductors manage dissonance within the confines of the music’s structure. It’s the structure that give the dissonance a frame within which it becomes music. Without structure dissonance is noise.

Leaders understand this. They maintain and support societal structure, sometimes called common courtesy, to create an environment conducive to discourse. Leaders encourage discussion including disagreements but don’t let it get out of control, they don’t let it leave the realm of common courtesy. If you do, you lose the benefits that come from straightforward discussion and honest disagreement. Think 12 bar blues.

Hip Shots

  • Be a conductor. Focus on the team’s success. Provide the leadership and resources team members need to solo and to play as an ensemble.
  • It’s important to be confident, all great conductors have an ego, but focus your confidence on the work, on the team, so that they are successful and their success will become yours.
  • Let the team take its bows before you take yours. Without them you’re nothing but a man or women with a short stick.
  • Great talent wants to work with great talent. Show your greatness by creating an environment where all can flourish.
  • Respect the people you work with. You will find it returned in spades.
  • Protect your people, stifle politics. Great things come when smart people are focused on the opportunity rather than protecting their backsides.
  • Be honest, with yourself and with others.
  • Listen, listen with your conscious mind, with empathy and care to many voices. And listen to what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. If you’re talking you aren’t listening.
  • Maintain decorum and civility within the team. Be the boss if that’s what it takes. Keep the conversation courteous and respectful and great ideas will be born.

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