Leading is like Conducting an Orchestra

| April 17, 2012

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading was written by Dana Stasiak, a participant in IT Leaders 2012, as a reflection on leadership for her cohort.  Dana is the manager for Web Services at Argonne National Laboratory.  She writes:


I was channel surfing on Sunday night after our first session and ended up on Great Performances on PBS.  As it happens, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was performing a piece by Benjamin Britten titled “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” As this is one of my favorite pieces of music, I paused to listen and in doing so I started thinking about how the orchestra/conductor relationship and this particular piece of music illustrate some of the leadership principles we discussed.

For those of you not familiar with Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, it opens with a musical theme introduced by the entire orchestra.  Each instrument is then featured playing a variation of the theme, showcasing that instrument’s unique sound and tone quality. The piece concludes with a fugue that  juxtaposes the various instruments and culminates in a fortissimo (loud) finish.

This piece teaches two things about an orchestra:

·     Each instrument brings a unique sound and character to the orchestra. 

·     Yet, the sound of the whole orchestra is greater than any individual instrument.

So too as leaders, we must listen for that unique voice each member of our team brings to the table and realize that together we can accomplish so much more than we can alone.  

For anyone who has performed in an ensemble, you know that the role of the conductor is two-fold:  (1) to provide the beat and tempo for the music being performed and (2) to listen to the sound of the ensemble and shape the interpretation of the composer’s original score. The body language of the conductor is also integral to the performance – small, contained movements of the baton indicate the need to play quietly and with delicacy – changing facial expressions help to convey the desired nuances in the music. 

After thinking about this, I was curious as to what has been written about the relationship of conductors to leadership.  A little “googling” found this 2009 TED talk:

·     Itay Talgam: “Lead like the great conductors” – http://www.ted.com/talks/itay_talgam_lead_like_the_great_conductors.html

If you have 20 minutes or so, take a listen.  The speaker talks about the differing styles of several great conductors of the last century.  Interspersed throughout are video clips of the conductors.  It’s incredible how much conductors influence the orchestra through only body language, gestures and facial expressions. 

So too as leaders, we have to be cognizant of what message we are sending with our non-verbal cues. 

It left me thinking … What type of “conductor” do I want to be?

So, take some time to think about Dana’s statement that as leaders, we must listen for that unique voice each member of our team brings to the table and realize that together we can accomplish so much more than we can alone.   What is that unique voice that each of your team members brings to the table?  How to you “conduct” them so that together you accomplish a great result?


Have a great week.  .  .  .    jim





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