Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Leader as Conductor: What can conducting teach us about leadership?

Leading an Organization’s Score, Instrumentalists, & Performance to Success

The conductor of an orchestra is, by definition, a leader. With a quick move of their baton, conductors decide when and how the sound starts and stops. Yet, conducting is far more complex than merely starting and stopping sound. Perhaps best described by Dr. Fountain, my conducting professor at Blair, conducting is “an art of leadership.” As we learned in class, conducting involves all of the core components involved in successful business leadership: Vision, communication, trust, mobilization, etc. Similar to leading a business, the conductor must strategically use key musical components (i.e., rhythm, style, interpretation, etc.) to achieve short-term technical goals, a unified musical product, and long-term musical vision. Conductor and leadership consultant, Itay Talgam, recently spoke at TED about using this conductor/musician analogy to improve organizational leadership. Given that they face the ultimate leadership challenge - creating perfect harmony without saying a word- I agree with Talgam that conductors have something valuable to teach us about leadership.

Just as CEOs uphold company mission statements, conductors work to support the uniqueness and value of the musical score. Originally conceived by the composer, the score creates the musical foundation of the ensemble and the boundaries it must adhere to. Similar with company mission statements, the conductor treats the score as sacred, using it to guide his ensemble to successful performances. Although he may slightly adapt it to fit his interpretation/vision, the score essentially remains true to its original form and intent. The conductor’s then must balance the interplay between the collective orchestra and the individual instrumentalists to give way to a unified sound. Although the instruments vary in tone color & playing technique, the conductor blends their unique timbres together into a single musical sound while giving each instrument the opportunity to shine on its own. Similar to the leader mobilizing others through a shared mission, the successful conductor uses communication and vision to unite the instrumentalists through a collective purpose – to deliver exceptional musical performances.

In his presentation, Talgam explains that the great conductors were successful because they enabled players to tell their own musical “stories” simultaneously, as a community. As Talgam put it, the best conductors are “doing without doing it,” acting as Theory Y enablers rather than Theory X controllers. Trusting that their players know how to play their music correctly, the great conductor refrains from stomping out the beats, but rather assumes a coordinating, “co-adventurer” role (Kelley). This enabling process resonates with De Pree’s view of leadership as the process of “liberating and enabling” others’ talents, ideas, and skills. Conductor leadership is a relationship (Stogdill, 1948 & Rost, 1991); the conductor knows what he wants from each instrument, but doesn’t personally make the music – that is the responsibility of the individual players who are the masters of their instruments. Dr. Fountain taught us that the conductor must communicate ongoing interpretive vision and direction to his musicians. Words may be used to communicate this, but the real test is communicating vision through non-verbal conducting. He explained that the conductor must communicate vision and musical goals through his gait, facial expressions, posture, breathing, and gestures- everything must be aligned. This nonverbal communication illustrates Hackman & Johnson’s view of leadership as an interactive process through which leaders and follows develop a strategy to achieve shared goals. “Matching their behaviors with their goals,” successful conductors use goal-driven communication to benefit the collective orchestra and better reach their shared vision and goals (1991).

Leaders should gain inspiration from the conductor’s ability to lead nonverbally. Using this metaphor, leaders should remember not only to communicate vision but to embody their vision and goals. We are also reminded to lead without doing or micromanaging- as leaders, we provide vision and guidance while our followers make it happen. Like the successful conductor, the leader needs to engage followers in their overall vision and, at the same time, offer them the independence to use their creativity and expertise to achieve that vision.

How would leading an organization entirely comprised of "creative types," such as musicians, be different and/or more challenging than leading a broadly diverse group of people?

In what ways can we apply the conducting model to leadership?

What other theories and concepts does the conducting metaphor bring to mind?



1 comment:

  1. Kristen, I enjoyed this blog as much as I enjoy being transported through the beauty of great symphony. Transformational leadership comes to mind for me (Burns, 1978; Bass and Avolio, 1994) because of the inspiration and intellectual, sensory stimulation that fine orchestras produce. Burns's idea of transformational leadership (1978) also connects me to the idea that this type of music often points me toward ideas like beauty, community, collective purpose--all aspirational in nature. I have found myself in difficult periods finding comfort in the uplifting melodies of classical symphonic pieces. Beautiful music helps transport me upward in my attitude the way few other remedies can. I agree that exceptional conductors leading and following her instrumentalists (Rost, 1991) are necessary to produce this ethereal quality.

    Senge (1990) also speak of shared vision between leaders and followers and what better place to benefit from such a thing than with a great orchestral production. I also get from Senge an almost spiritual overtone to his leadership theories and music has the capability to tap into that other realm.

    I'll see what other inspirations come to me this weekend while I take a "study break" and listen to the Nashville Symphony's "A Musical Space Odyssey" featuring Giancarlo Guerrero,conducting and guest pianist Yefin Bronfman. There is no doubt that Giancarlo is a talented leader with many leadership characterists. But that is for another blog for another day!


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