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Written by Natacha Wilson

Leading like a conductor: the art of influence and direction

What does a good leader do to get results? This question has fuelled many conversations about leadership traits, qualities, behaviours, and styles. In our current volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous climate, these questions are more pertinent than ever. In my previous article  Are you leading like a pilot?, I looked at situational leadership, and its many facets.

In this article “Leading like a conductor”, I explore leadership styles, using a different environment: the orchestra and its conductor. In this specific context, the conductor needs to develop their leadership capabilities and style to empower the musicians to give their best performance in front of an eager audience. I started thinking about writing this article when I listened to Itay Talgam’s TED Talk demonstrating the unique styles of six great 20th-century conductors, and their crucial lessons for all leaders. I reflect on my own experience, working as a leadership development consultant, and have identified 4 key leadership capabilities that can apply to leaders across sectors.

1/ Leading by empowering experts

In the orchestra, everyone has a specific role to play. Each member of the team has a specific skill, talent and sensitivity that needs to be recognised and acknowledged by the conductor and other musicians.

There are many parallels with the world of research and business. Leaders need to be comfortable with being supported by individuals and groups that are talented and experts in what they do. A conductor cannot play all the musical instruments in the orchestra and even if they did, they could not play them all at once. A leader in the 21st century is more likely to be faced with this race for experts and knowledge in view of the pace of change and the types of skills required to run a research group or launch a product. Advanced technology, cyber security, and artificial intelligence (AI) come to mind. To stay ahead, leaders need to choose the best “musicians” or experts in specific fields and rely on them to provide knowledge and skills that will drive the best performance.

Working with experts requires humility and patience– which can be embodied in meetings and rehearsals. Leaders also need to develop the ability to relate with each member of the orchestra or team. Choosing the best musicians and team members, in the first instance, will go a long way. Furthermore, leaders need to be able to create an environment which will help everyone to engage fully. We often speak about creating “psychological safety”, which can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking and all feel accepted and respected.

 

  1. Leading through chaos towards harmony

Conductors are responsible for leading the creative process and help musicians give their best possible performance. To do this, conductors and leaders need to establish a road map with scheduled rehearsals and clear communication. Although the process is hardly linear, there are often stages teams go through before reaching high level of performance. The forming–storming–norming–performing model of group development was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. Tuckman suggested that these inevitable phases were critical for a team to grow, face up to challenges, find solutions, plan work, and perform.  

As a leader, one needs to create the right culture to allow for the music to unfold and the orchestra to perform as one. This requires patience, adaptability, and selecting the right leadership strategy for each phase identified by Tucker. Further research suggests that during the forming stage a leader should be more directing. During the storming stage, the aim is to resolve conflict and tensions which requires a coaching strategy. In the norming and performing stages, a leader should seek to empower their team members.

Once you have an established team, a supportive strategy may be the adequate. I remember a colleague of mine, who is a CEO of a learning and development organisation, once said shared her views on leadership: “I am here to point to the music sheet, set the pace when needed, and provide freedom for everyone to play their instrument. And please, remember the door is open if you have any questions or comments.” This approach provides the space to perform with enough freedom and support. However, as I was reflecting on the pace of changes and variety of projects, it occurred to me that there are times when more freedom of expression and input is allowed, such as with jazz and start-ups, and yet, what unites musicians of all genres, is the ability to listen and respond to each other within a given framework or goal.

To sum up, conductors need to be comfortable with managing different stages of the creative process and team development as it leads to beauty, innovative interpretations as well as great successes.

 

  1. Leading from the stalls and the terrace

From time to time, conductors may take another seat. Standing in front of the musicians or in front of the boardroom table, sets expectations. Seating in the stalls, balcony, or the terrace, helps leaders gain a different perspective and see what the audience would see. To do this, leaders need to delegate and ask for someone else to lead. This could be for a meeting, a project, or a specific phase of a research or strategy.

Delegation requires careful consideration, preparation, nurturing -and including mentoring.  When done well, the person who steps up can gain incredible confidence and real-life experience. They can also share powerful insights that can support positive change if the leader is ready to listen. Developing leadership capabilities is an everyday venture and opportunities to share insights is at the heart of a learning culture – where everyone is looking for ways to improve and contribute.

From the perspective of the conductor, taking the time to step back and see what is happening, from a different viewpoint, can be a powerful way to gain insights. When we’re immersed in a task or focused on a role, our perspective is reduced. “Stepping back” allows us to gain clarity.

  

  1. Leading celebrations and recognition

The concert has taken place and hopefully, the audience has been enchanted by the orchestra and their performance. This can mean that your research team has produced sufficient data that can lead to a publication, or you have successfully launched a new product or service.

When response is positive, conductors and leaders can forget to celebrate success. There may be pressure to do better or go to the next project. This can be detrimental for morale and can also lead to burnout. Celebrations are part of rituals and routines that a team an organisation can rely on. It links to aspects of the culture that need to be seen and experienced. It creates bonds and shared experiences that, in turn, will support loyalty and success for the next concert or project. 

Celebrations are important phases for all, and this means that conductors and leaders need to recognise contributions from all musicians and team members involved. This includes people the audience cannot see – such as the light and sound technicians. I recently read the wonderful book Time To Think by Nancy Kline. The author mentions the importance of praise and recognition in building highly performing teams. Leaders need to embed appreciation in the team and organisation cultures to reap its benefits. Appreciation is key for performance and to establish loyalty.

You may be wondering what to do if the audience’s response has been low or even negative. What if your product launch or research data has fallen short?  Strong leaders manage to turn this around and show appreciation of efforts before setting a new way forward. This is also important to help team members recover, gain their strength back and respond positively to new challenges.

 

Are you leading like a conductor? Does this style of leadership appeal to you? Comment below about which elements resonate with you and share your perspective on leading like a conductor.  If you are interested in my leadership workshops or programmes, get in touch and we can set-up a Zoom call.

 

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About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson, founder of Cambridge Insights, is a learning and development consultant and coach. She creates tailored development programmes, which combine 21st century skills, mindsets, and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support transformational leaders and  “leaders in the making” increase their postive impact, solve global challenges and create a greater world.

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