Leadership Secrets from a Maestro

leadership secret from maestro music note thumbHave you ever wondered what it’s like to conduct a word-class professional orchestra?

For the seasoned maestro it can feel like the ultimate dream come true. During the performance the orchestra seems to read your mind, knowing exactly how you’d wish to shape this phrase or pace that crescendo. The musicians’ collective skill instantly serves up the very sound you just imagined. They respond with an amazing unity to the subtlest motions of your baton, the slightest movements of your hands, and even to your unconscious facial expressions.

It takes many years, however, to master that complex and delicate relationship between maestro and orchestra. For the inexperienced conductor standing on the podium, it can be a lonely and isolated experience. If he looks to the musicians for any support or encouragement he will find none. They have, after all, spent a lifetime of practicing to play as perfectly as they can. The same perfectionism that served them so well in honing their own skills is inevitably focused on the conductor. The musicians long for a leader as skilled in his craft of conducting as they are in their craft of instrument-playing.

So what does a young conductor need to know as she steps steps up the podium, looking out at all those expectant, demanding faces? What I’ve learned from years of conducting symphony orchestras and working with business leaders is that a maestro and an executive face very similar challenges. Therefore, what helps on the podium can help in the corner office.

Have a clear and vibrant vision for your people’s success

Leaders who have not yet done the hard work of imagining a best-case scenario for their organizations will inevitably default to leading through correction and criticism. But when your highest priority is developing the right goals and strategy, you will spend most of your time inspiring people about them and guiding them towards successful achievement.

Listen carefully to your people

A maestro listens “microscopically” to the orchestra. She uses the special perspective of her podium to take in both the big picture and the relevant details. In her imagination she juxtaposes the reality of the orchestra’s playing with her best-case vision of how they might sound. Subtracting one from the other shows the crucial gap she needs to narrow or even eliminate. Armed with this knowledge she can focus the organization’s attention on those few crucial points.

Translate your agenda into directions that can easily be understood and executed by the players.

It is a major accomplishment to devise the right goals, but that is no guarantee they will be achieved. Only your workforce can accomplish that, and the leader and the worker will have vastly different understandings of the vision. The leader’s understanding is based on the pressing strategic needs, as seen from the podium. The worker’s view is shaped by the chair he occupies, where the big-picture view of the organization is very much in the distant background. So the leader needs to translate the vision so that it makes sense from every chair. The workforce cannot act effectively until the leader expresses directions and assignments in the language they understand.

It’s not about you. It’s about how the orchestra sounds under your direction.

It’s very easy for a conductor to personalize the orchestra’s behavior and see it as reflection on him or his abilities. But the orchestra is not nearly so concerned with what a conductor does or says as they are with how they sound. Therefore sharpen your focus on simply getting the best results, and don’t get distracted by interpersonal dynamics.

Yes, a symphony orchestra is a unique workforce, one more focused on aesthetic perfection than bottom-line profits. But in the harmony of the maestro-orchestra relationship, there are many lessons for leaders who listen.

Roger Nierenberg | October 26, 2009

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