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What wielding a baton can teach us about leadership

 conductor (1).jpg


I am privileged to be writing this from a lovely apartment in the fifth district of Vienna.  My partner, Katja, lives and works here.  It is her apartment and the appliance of modern technology means that I can work from here while we enjoy some time together following the Christmas period.

On the first of January we watched the Vienna Philharmonic New Year Concert and you may have watched it too.  It is televised in 90 countries and estimated to be watched by over forty million people worldwide. 

Over the years I have had it on in the background while I nursed a hangover, or did some New Year planning, but I never really paid that much attention.  Perhaps this year was different because I knew that it was all happening live, barely a thirty-minute walk from us, at the beautiful neoclassical Wiener Musikverein.  Whatever the reason, I became quite fascinated with watching the activity of the orchestra as much as listening to the music.  I realised that the orchestra is a perfect analogy for how a business is put together and how we can learn from the way successful, harmonious orchestras make something wonderful and sought after that can also bring joy and happiness. 

I originally intended to write about all the different elements of the orchestra and the four sections working together. I realised that would be a very lengthy article and would be more useful as an example of maximising team success and putting together the right people – which is something I will cover in a later article with some help from friends who are experts in psychometric and behavioural profiling, NLP, and occupational psychology.

Instead, I have chosen to concentrate on the Conductor and what we can learn about leadership from the best ones.  I hope this is especially useful for Managing Directors (MD), Sales Directors, Operations Directors, Managers and Team Leaders, or those that aspire to such roles, in becoming a better leader to deliver greater success for your organisation.

The Conductor (Christian Thielemann in this case) is usually the most noticeable individual, the figurehead, and often the one that people ask of them, “what do they actually do?”

The primary responsibilities of the Conductor, much like the MD or other senior management, are:

To translate the vision of the composer into glorious sounds
In the business world it is the corporate vision, business plan, goals and targets that provide the score which guides the players.  The composer may be a sole trader, the CEO, MD or a Board of Shareholders but, whichever it is, there should be a written plan that can be used as a guide for all the musicians, or employees, in the team.  It is the responsibility of the leader, whether that be the MD or a line manager (anybody with responsibility for the team around them) to interpret the score.

Unify performers
If all the musicians in the orchestra did their own thing, whenever they felt like it, the resulting sound would be a cacophony of chaos and horrible to see and hear …or free jazz.  (I’m joking jazz fans – I’m quite partial to a bit of trad jazz myself from time to time). This doesn’t mean that people lose their own identity and are assimilated into a whole that doesn’t recognise, or reward, exceptional talent or effort.  When you watch an orchestra perform you will see that the musicians play together, in small groups, and solo performances.  But these are all brought together in a way that works.  The Conductor unifies the players so that they want to give their best individual performance and so that they give their fellow players the best opportunity to do the same – so that the result is as close to perfect as can be.  This means allowing the stars to shine when appropriate without all else being ignored or taken for granted.  Have you noticed how a Conductor will continue to guide the rest of the orchestra to maintain the rhythm while also firing up a section, or soloist, to take over the melody?  The Conductor also leads the sections to work in a way that allows the other sections to dovetail, overshadow, fall-back and work in tandem with other “teams” at different parts in the journey through the piece.

Set the tempo
In business, as in most things, there are times when it is most appropriate and productive to steam ahead fast and loud.  Other times will demand a slower or quieter approach.  The best leader not only anticipates and understands when this is, but ensures that each person, each section, and the whole orchestra is clear about what the tempo is at any time.

While we simply see somebody waving their arms around in front of the orchestra pit and the musicians blindly following the lead, the most successful Conductors are those that have explained the why and how behind the changes and direction, in hours of rehearsal and working together to interpret and understand the score and the instructions within.

Execute clear preparations
Not only does the good Conductor rehearse and coach their musicians, during the performance they have subtle signs to ready them for places when things change, so that they don’t miss the cue for any reason.  The signs are subtle to an audience but the lines and means of communication have already been outlined, are clear, and understood by all parties.

Put in the hours
While it looks like they have the easiest job, waving the baton around, having a little dance about, while the rest of the orchestra fiddle their elbows off, huff and puff and sweat into mouthpieces, and bash the life out of the drums and percussion, the Conductor has put in many more hours of rehearsal, learning and preparation than anybody else.  The most respected, and best at what they do, will spend hours of their own time learning about the music, the composer, interpreting and looking for new and wonderful ways to improve on what has been before.  They will have spent many years earning their stripes as a musician in their own right and then start learning all over again.  They learn the mechanics of conducting and how to bring so many people together rather than just being concerned with getting their own part right.

Figurehead and glory
The Conductor is the figurehead of the orchestra and is the one who is celebrated when things go well.  When they don’t go well, they take the blame and the responsibility.  The best Conductors do not blame the musicians if there is a disaster or things don’t work.  They will say things like “I couldn’t hold the orchestra together” or “I failed to convey the message properly”.

They also acknowledge and reflect any glory back onto the musicians that delivered the results.  They take their bow quickly and then encourage each section and soloist to receive their applause and recognition.  There is always much acknowledgement of the part played by the first violinist in supporting the Conductor role too.

So, if we want to be better leaders, we might take a leaf from the Conductor’s score. 

About the author: 
Sarah knows bugger all about classical music and orchestras.  She played trumpet, very badly, for several years and can manage a stuttering, barely recognisable rendition of Wonderwall on the guitar.  In fact, you can only recognise it when she starts singing the words "Wonderwall”. 

She DOES, however, know a lot about placing great leaders and managers with businesses of all sizes and industry types.  So, if you’re looking for somebody to help you deliver your opus, or have any questions about what to look for, please feel free to call Sarah on 01902 763006 or email her at sarah@recruitrecruit.co.uk


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