Watch the Director!

What you can learn about leadership from the musical conductor is comprehensive.

I spend my time working with great people doing great things. The more competent clients realize how much they don’t know, and they’re willing to be open to new ideas, and challenges to old habits and old ways of leading people. Over the years, I have developed leadership programs based on the skills of the musical conductor. I have developed my four leadership principles in parallel with those of the musical conductor, which are the following:

1. Know the Score – Foundations: The conductor is familiar with the musical score. Define your vision, values, and mission, and articulate your goals to the teams you lead. Have clarity about your leadership style and be a continuing student of leadership.

2. Hire the Best – Relationships: Surround yourself with the best people possible. Build and maintain effective relationships. Relationships are the key to effective leadership.

3. Rehearse for Success – Systems: A bad rehearsal develops bad practices and leads to a bad performance. Develop and maintain systems that model excellence. Create excellence in systems, so that high functioning is a part of the culture. Rehearse excellence to make it a habit.

4. Value the Rests – Balance: God has provided a Sabbath for us to rest. Taking a day off for rest is essential to be our best as leaders. Rests in music are intentional punctuations in the music. Balance is important in work and rest, managing multiple priorities, and caring for our physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental selves.

Here are some specific lessons leaders can learn by observing a musical conductor in action:

1. What they see is what you get – This is the name of a video series by Rodney Eichenberger for choral conductors. The point is that the singers respond to the conductor – good or bad. Many poor conductors correct choirs that have responded to what they saw, rather than have enough self-awareness to know that the motion or mannerism inspired a particular response that was not intended. So, the bottom line here is, if you don’t like what your singers are producing, then look in the mirror and decide how to change your own skills. In non-musical leadership situations, the problems with the team could very well be traced back to the leader.  Transformational Leaders model what they want their teams to do. So you, as the leader, set the pace. Model promptness, high ethical standards, preparedness, nurture of others, listening skills, and other traits that make for good leadership. Create the culture of high functioning by modeling high functioning consistently.

2. If they like you, they do what you intend – The orchestra members will play what the conductor intends if they like the conductor. If they do not like the conductor, then they play exactly as the person directs. Many of the nuances in music cannot be conducted precisely. Many of the fine elements of team performance cannot be mandated. The team is a highly skilled unit, like the orchestra or choir is an ensemble. Be authentic. If you don’t know something, then say so. If it’s not your skill, then delegate it. Transparency, authenticity, and clarity are top leadership skills. Be sincere all the time, and mean it all the time.

3. Let them play – don’t impose – This seems to be a contradiction in the image of a strong leader or conductor. We picture the conductor as always being in control. Well, they are. However, the conductor inspires the singers or instrumentalists to fully access their skills as virtuoso musicians. The success of the orchestra or choir depends on each person utilizing their highest capacity. Your being clear in articulating the vision for how the music is shaped allows the musicians to utilize their skill to its fullest. The conductor cannot dictate. The conductor must inspire excellence. Part of that is letting go and allowing the participants to do their best. As leaders, we want to impose our sequence or ideas onto those to whom we have delegated tasks or projects. Letting go and allowing the person to utilize the opportunity to create excellence allows both the team member, and the leader, to look good, and for the end result to be the best it can be.

4. Always work on your own skills upgrade – The Transformational Leader is transforming ideas into reality, transforming organizations, transforming teams, and transforming other factors, as well. The transformation begins with the leader. The musical conductor must be fully skilled before the first rehearsal, not only knowing the music, but also knowing how to teach the ensemble about the articulation desired. The first skill taught is teaching yourself about the project or event, and learning how to articulate your vision. This takes practice.

5. Define the context for accomplishment – There is a clear context for engagement within a well-defined orchestral or choral culture – be ready to begin on time with the correct music and correct instruments. The singer or musician must be prepared by having looked over the music, respond as directed, and mark the music for nuances or exceptions. The culture of the choir or orchestra is well-defined and specific, with clear expectations and customs. Learning from this model, create a team covenant with the team you lead, and let the team members define their culture of excellence.

Your team is a reflection of you – skills, performance, attitude, relationships, personal interaction, and transparency. Model what you want to see in your team. Inspire those things by being at your best.

This is a refresh of a previous post.

Hugh Ballou
The Transformational Leadership Strategist

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