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5 leadership lessons from and orchestra conductor

What does leading an orchestra have to do with leading a company? More than you think.

How can a conductor possibly teach business executives how to improve their leadership skills?

In his workshop, Leading & Conducting, conductor Raphael Hoensbroech, who serves as managing director at the Konzerthaus Berlin and as an active conductor and violinist, made insightful analogies between leading an orchestra and leading a company. Raphael has a fascinating perspective on the topic and offered five key points to take away.

As I entered the spacious room, submerged in dimmed light, I saw a conductor standing in front of an orchestra of musicians seated amongst business consultants. I heard the music, started by a gentle swing of the conductor’s baton. What an amazing experience, to sit right in the middle of an orchestra! The conductor then stopped and told the musicians to play without him orchestrating. You would think that they would play in an inharmonious way. But that wasn’t the case. 

“So, what do they need me for then?” asked the conductor.  Am I, as a leader, not indispensable? He continued by explaining that the leader’s role is to ensure that more than the mere addition of the players is achieved. He was there to ensure that the musicians excelled when playing music together, to make sure they go “from playing notes to playing music together”, as he phrased it. So here it was, the first lesson:

Lesson 1: A leader is indispensable to achieve excellence in group work

Next, the conductor asked some of the business managers to switch seats in-between the musical moments. One manager who was sat next to the violin, switched with another who was seated next to the contrabass.

The orchestra then played on, before another pause in which the conductor asked the two managers if they’d noticed any change. Unsurprisingly, each stated that sitting next to the violin was a totally different auditory experience than sitting next to the contrabass. 

Indeed, each placement in an orchestra translates into a radically different perception of the orchestra. The same goes with perceptions inside a company.

Each employee has a different reality or vision of their company. This can undermine the establishment of a common goal and vision. A leader needs to be aware of this and they need to find common ground upon which everyone can work. That way, individual bias, including the leader’s own, is not tampering with the company’s vision.

Lesson 2: A leader needs to be aware of individual bias in a company and keep it balanced

The conductor continued by asking the orchestra to play again, but this time he instructed the flute musicians to play in a mismatched pitch. When he asked the rest of the orchestra to provide feedback, needless to say, they all found the adjusted flute’s pitch very distracting. Confusion and insecurity arose, along with questions like: Am I playing wrong? Should I adapt to the flutes for the sake of the harmony of the group even if I know they are playing wrong? 

In this way, the conductor demonstrated how a problem in the system, which can’t be solved by the team, can trigger a dynamic of mistrust. Subsequently, the subtle and unspoken building tension destroys the conditions for efficient collaboration and hinders a creativity-friendly environment. That’s where the leader needs to step in and counteract any potential mistrust between employees.

Lesson 3: A leader must even out internal tensions, as subtle as they might be

Next, the conductor chose one of the attending business consultants and had them take his place to lead the orchestra. The consultant was clearly confused as they swung the baton. They tried to recognise the impact of their gestures on the orchestra’s performance and adjust accordingly.

By observing the consultant’s difficulties, it became clear that if a leader lacks the clear expectations or objectives that need to be conveyed to the group, the leader will, as a result, end up following the group.

Equally, in this situation, the group will be improvising and trying their best to achieve a good outcome. Therefore, a leader needs to be visionary and to constantly remind the employees of the goal of a project or of the mission of the company. Leadership is about conveying a common vision and making sure that everybody looks forward, instead of focusing on past mistakes.

Lesson 4: A leader reminds everyone to look forward instead of backwards

Towards the end of the session, the conductor tested different styles of leadership on his orchestra. First, he acted as a typical micro-manager and the result was that the musicians felt the need to resist and escape the over-control, as they later explained when interviewed.

After that, he led the orchestra by focusing on the music only and not the musicians. This time, the musicians revealed a shared feeling of disconnection caused by his conducting solely for personal enjoyment. 

These micro-experiments helped to highlight the fact that leadership is ultimately a question of attitude towards the ones who achieve greatness together. A leader needs to be aware that it is not about them but that instead their role is mainly to enable a group to converge to a common vision.  A leader needs to serve the team, by giving appreciation, positive impulses and correcting where needed. 

When approaching the subject of appreciation, the conductor observed that leaders often think this only concerns giving praise for good work done. In truth, there is far more to it. In crucial moments, a great leader steps out of the way and clears the stage to the one who should be giving the performance. It is all about looking that person in the eye, conveying complete trust and making them aware that it’s their moment.  Itay Talgam draws a similar conclusion in the end of his Ted Talk Lead like the great conductors.

While the conductor is “the storyteller to whom the whole community listens,” it is the musicians who ultimately create the story. Great leadership boils down to clearing the stage to the people who achieve greatness together, while ensuring harmony between them. “If you love something, give it away,” as the famous conductor Bernstein once stated. (By the way, you can see him leading an orchestra without even moving a finger).

Lesson 5: A Leader should serve the group so that it can achieve greatness

This interactive workshop truly made me, and the other participants, reflect on the subtleties of leadership, whether in an orchestra or an organisation. The analogy of the orchestra was all the more interesting as it provided a different perspective and helped assimilate lessons in a far more effective way than had it been a conventional speech. 

Being a great leader is all about conveying a vision, being extremely attentive, so as to establish structure and trust within a team, and about setting up the right conditions so that greatness can be achieved. But I guess the most important attribute for leadership is modesty. In the end, a great leader understands that results are essentially achieved by their team, the very people they need to empower.

Veröffentlicht in Corporate Leadership am 28.09.2023

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What does leading an orchestra have to do with leading a company? More than you think.