Conducting Transformation: Leader, not Dictator

The Musical Conductor is Perceived to be a Dictator – Think Again!

People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives. – Theodore Roosevelt

Leader Vs Dictator The opposite polarities are the autocratic/charismatic leader on one end, who is the boss/dictator, and the Transformational Leader on the other end, who leads people to higher functioning to fulfill a clearly-stated vision.

I am asked often if the musical conductor is a dictator, because that is the common misconception among non-conductors. Some conductors act as dictators, and some engage musicians in making music together. There is a difference.

While I was studying music in college, a world-famous conductor came to town and took the post of musical conductor of the symphony. The whole attitude and musical culture of the city changed overnight with the presence of a famed conductor at the helm of the orchestra. He conducted his first set of rehearsals, then conducted the first performance with some interesting results. The orchestra underperformed to make the conductor look bad. They didn’t look bad. He looked very bad.

Let’s unpack this situation to see what happened. This famed conductor had made his mark over the extent of his illustrious career by changing the quality of choral music performance. He then served as assistant conductor to a famous orchestra conductor who was known as a tough taskmaster and was hard on orchestras. He came to the big city position to make his mark by being tough on the players. There was no tradition of this dynamic, so the orchestra didn’t respond to this kind of leadership. The culture in this orchestra was very different than in some others.

The conductor was very hard and demanding, like a dictator, in the rehearsals. In the concert, the orchestra got even. They played poorly.

Here’s the dynamic:

If the orchestra likes the conductor, they play as the conductor intends.

If the orchestra does not like the conductor, they play exactly as the conductor directs.

That capsule summary gives you the idea. In the military, if the platoon does not respect the platoon leader, then they are likely to shoot the leader in the back during combat.

Transformational Leadership was birthed by Burns and Bass in the 1980s from education and the military. The Transformational Leader creates and empowers leaders within organizations. Empowerment does not come from the leader using the power of position, but rather from the leader’s personal influence. The effective Transformational Leader influences others to perform at a higher standard because of their personal skill, and because of the relationships cultured with those whom the leader desires to influence.

The Transformational Leader is, therefore, a person of influence.

I have heard the same piece of music performed by two different ensembles with two different conductors. One performance was mediocre and the other one was exciting. The difference was in the leadership. The second performance was exciting because the conductor inspired the performers to a higher level of engagement and a level of higher functioning.

In non-musical leadership situations, the same principle applies. If the team does not respect the leader, then they follow the directions just as stated. When the team respects the leader, then they respond to the principles and intentions of the leader.

Here are some thoughts that we will explore in future blog posts about leaders who influence others to a higher level of function and engagement:

  • Leaders never tell people what to do – they define the outcomes and coach the team to reach the objectives.
  • Leaders don’t push people – they draw out competencies and allow others to seek fulfilment.
  • Leaders don’t manage people – they manage things, they manage time, they manage money, but not people.
  • Leaders listen – they don’t talk all the time.
  • Leaders don’t have all the answers – leaders ask the right questions and coach others to seek the answers.
  • Leaders are not always right – nobody likes people who are right all the time, leaders make others right.
  • Leaders don’t criticize – they encourage, inspire and engage others.

What’s your model for leadership?

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Hugh Ballou
The Transformational Leadership Strategist

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(c) 2013 Hugh Ballou. All rights reserved.


Hugh Ballou (Author)

  • Ronald M. Kyamagero

    Nice stuff!