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What did a conductor ever do for us?

I could do that job!  All he does is to stand at the front and wave his arms about.

The same observation may be levelled at the leaders of many organisations, that all they do is to stand at the front and wave their arms about, and it’s fascinating to see three common elements at work in what we can learn about leadership from the work of a conductor.  

My first experience of playing in an orchestra was with the Sutton Coldfield Youth Orchestra and our conductor was a rather eccentric and musically passionate gentleman called Peter Woodham.  I was still in primary school, and the main job of the conductor was to try to get all of the young musicians to play at the right time and in tune.  We would play such well-known tunes as “March in C Major”, Berthold Goldschmidt’s “Greek Suite” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

Sutton Coldfield Youth Orchestra

In my early teens, I moved up to join the Midland Youth Orchestra, which had a significantly higher standard of musicianship; these were seriously talented musicians.  For the first rehearsal I attended, I was sat at the very back of the violin section, a half desk at the back of the seconds.  Then we got the music out and started to play, and to my young ears, it felt like I was sitting in the middle of a recording studio while the rest of the orchestra played Beethovens iconic 5th Symphony right before my eyes, and seemingly played it to absolute perfection to my ears.

Midland Youth Orchestra

For most of my adult life, I have been a member of the North Staffordshire Symphony Orchestra, playing occasionally as time permits, and we have played some fantastic pieces, some very exciting pieces and some really challenging pieces.  It’s been fascinating watching our conductor – most recently a really passionate Italian guy named Juan – work with the orchestra though, and especially to look at how he works with the musicians in the orchestra to get the sound he wants in time for our concerts.  

One thing is for sure, that by the day of concert the conductor has done most of his work.  

The work for the conductor starts well before she joins the orchestra for an initial playthrough of the music.  Before we ever get together the conductor will need to know the work pretty well.  She will have studied the composer, she’ll know the musical influences of the era and have listened to other interpretations of the work, before forming her own expectation of how this piece will sound.  The conductor will hear the music in her imagination, and will then seek to bring that into the performance from the members of the orchestra.  

Having a clear audible image of the piece, the conductor will spend many weeks working with the orchestra to replicate that sound in the rehearsals, just as any craftsman will create their work.  They will describe to the orchestra all the nuances they are seeking, explain to each section of the orchestra how to play, and provide vivid images and word pictures to help each musician to know what sound they are expected to make.  

I remember discussing this with my son Adam a few years ago.  At the time he was living in Florida, and he was visiting with Sue and me for a week or two.  I had a concert coming up, but that was going to be after he had returned to the US, so he came along to one of the rehearsals to hear the orchestra.  He was really interested to see how much work our conductor puts in to the rehearsals, and how he worked with the different sections of the orchestra to obtain the sound he was looking for.  

So what can we learn from that, as leaders, to take with us into the life of our organisations?  

First, just as the conductor needs to know what sound she needs the orchestra to make, the leader needs to have a really clear image of the place to which she is leading the organisation.  The first essential element of PRIZE Winning Leadership is called Imagine, and is all about imagining your dream, about being able to see “over the horizon”.  Just as the conductor needs to be familiar with the era and other interpretations of the piece they are conducting, the leader needs to be able to articulate which part of the market they will serve (their niche), and how their solution differs from other products or services that are serving similar markets; how their offering to their market is unique. 

Imagine ~ Leaders need to be able to see “over the horizon”.  

Second, the conductor needs to be able to influence the members of the orchestra to play exactly as she needs them to play.  Juan, our conductor, is really animated in the way he describes the effect he is seeking to elicit from each section of the orchestra, and his descriptions are really gripping and memorable.  Having a clear image of what is over the horizon, the leader then needs to be able to describe what’s “on the horizon” that the team will be able to see.  She will need to be able to influence her team in such a way that the entire team can see what’s on the horizon, and they are all aligned in pursuing that as a common goal.  Influence is the second essential element of PRIZE Winning Leadership.  

Influence ~ Leaders need to be able to describe what’s “on the horizon”.  

Third, the conductor needs to know enough about each instrument in the orchestra, and have a fairly good understanding of the proficiency of each member of the orchestra in order to know how to get the best out of each musician, to help them to stretch and strive for making the sound she is after.  In the same way, the effective leader needs to understand the personality of each member of their team and the things that motivate them, and then how to relate to each member of their team most effectively.  The third essential element of PRIZE Winning Leadership is Interact and is all about understanding the identity of each team member and interacting with them in the most effective manner.  

Interact ~ Leaders need to be able help their team get “to the horizon”.

What did a conductor ever do for us?  Well, for me, exploring what a conductor actually does when working with an orchestra provides a really helpful model to see leadership principles clearly demonstrated.  Rather like the age-old model of the iceberg, the work a conductor does is never seen by the audience, since by the time a piece is ready to perform the hard work has already been done: seeing over the horizon, describing what’s on the horizon, and getting to the horizon.  

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.