5 leadership lessons from an orchestra conductor

What does leading an orchestra have to do with leading a company? More than you think.


How can a conductor possibly teach business executives how to improve their leadership skills? Turns out that in his workshop “Leading & Conducting” the conductor Raphael Hoensbroech, managing director at the Konzerthaus Berlin but also active as conductor and violinist of many years, makes insightful analogies between leading an orchestra and leading a company. Learning about leadership from the perspective of a conductor who offered  five key lessons  I would like to share them with you today.

As I enter the spacious room, submerged in dimmed light, I see a conductor standing in front of an orchestra of musicians seated amongst business consultants. I hear the music, started by the gentle swinging of the conductor´s baton. What an amazing music experience, sitting right in the middle of the orchestra! He then stops and tells the musicians to play without him orchestrating. You would think that they would probably play in a fairly inharmonious way. But that´s not really the case.

So, “What do they need me for then?” asked the conductor.  Am I, as a leader, not indispensable? He continued by explaining that the leader´s role is to ensure that more than the mere addition of the players is achieved. He´s here to ensure that the musicians excel when playing music together, to make sure they go  “from playing notes to playing music together”, as he phrased it. So here it was, the first lesson:

→ Lesson 1: A leader is indispensable for achieving excellence in a group work

Then, he asked some managers in the public to switch seats in between the plays, one sitting next to the violin and the other next to the contrabass, and to describe what they noticed. Unsurprisingly, they stated that sitting next to a violin is a totally different auditory experience than sitting next to the contrabass.

Indeed, each placement in an orchestra translates into a radically different perception of the orchestra. Same goes with perception inside a company: each employee has another reality or vision of the company, and this could undermine the establishment of a common goal and vision. A leader needs to be aware of that, and he/she needs to find a common ground everyone can work on so that individual bias -including the leader’s- is not tampering with the company´s vision.

→ Lesson 2: A leader needs to be aware of individual bias in a company and balance it out

The conductor continued by asking the orchestra to play again, but this time instructs the flute musicians to play in a mismatched pitch. When he asked the rest of the orchestra to provide feedback, needless to say, they perceived it as very distracting. Confusion and insecurity would arise, along with questions like: Am I playing wrong? Should I adapt to the flutes for the sake of harmony in the group even if I know they are playing wrong?

And that´s how the conductor demonstrated how a problem in the system, which can´t be solved by the team, can trigger a dynamics of mistrust. Subsequently, the subtle and unspoken tensions building up destroys the conditions for efficient collaboration and hinder a creativity-friendly environment. That´s where the leader needs to step in, counteracting any potential mistrust between employees.

→ Lesson 3: A leader has to even out internal tensions, as subtle as they might be

At one time, the conductor chose one of the consultants in the public to lead the orchestra instead of him. You could clearly see the employee´s confusion when he swung the baton, trying to recognize the impact of his gestures on the orchestra´s performance and trying to adapt accordingly.

By observing his difficulties it become clear that if a leader lacks clear expectations or objectives that need to be conveyed  to the group, the leader will, as a result,  end up following the group At the same time,  the group will be improvising and trying their best to achieve a good outcome. Therefore, a leader needs to be visionary and to constantly remind the employees what is the goal of a project or the mission of the company. Leadership is about conveying a common vision and making sure that everybody looks forward, instead of focusing on past mistakes.

→ Lesson 4: A leader reminds everyone to look forward instead of backwards

Towards the end of the session, the conductor approached the topic of leadership by testing the  different styles of leadership. First he acted as a typical micro-manager and the result was that the musicians felt the need to resist and escape the over-control (as they explained when interviewed). After that, he led the orchestra by focussing on the music only and not the musicians. Neither that worked, their comments reveiled a shared feeling of disconnection caused by his conducting solely for personal enjoyment.

This to realize that leadership is ultimately a question of attitude towards the ones who achieve greatness together. A leader needs to be aware that it is not about him/her but that instead his/her role is mainly to enable a group to converge to a common vision.  A leader needs to serve the team, by giving appreciation, positive impulses and correcting where needed.

When taking the example of giving appreciation, the conductor observed that leaders often think that this concerns only praising someone for the good work done. But it is actually so much more than that:

In crucial moments, a great leader moves out of the way, and clears the stage to the one who should give the performance. It is all about looking that person in the eye, conveying complete trust, making him or her aware that it´s their moment.

Itay Talgam draws a similar conclusion in the end of his Ted Talk Lead like the great conductors: it while the conductor is “the storyteller to which the whole community listens to”, it is the musicians who ultimately constitute the story. Great leadership boils down to clearing the stage to the people who achieve greatness together, while ensuring harmony between them. “If you love something, give it away”, as the famous conductor Bernstein stated once (by the way, you can see him leading an orchestra without even moving a little finger)

→ Lesson 5: A Leader should serve the group so that it can achieve greatness

This interactive workshop surely made me and the other participants reflect on the subtleties of leadership, may it be in an orchestra or organization. The analogy of the orchestra was all the more interesting as it provided a different perspective on things, and it helped assimilate lessons way better than during a conventional speech.

Being a great leader is all about conveying a vision, being extremely attentive so as to establish structure and trust within a team, and about setting up the right conditions so that greatness can be achieved. But I guess that the major attribute for a leader to have is modesty: in the end, a great leader understands that the results are essentially achieved by his/her team, the very people he/she needs to empower.

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