#050: 8 Leadership Lessons from a Symphony Conductor [Podcast]

Not long ago, I sat in Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center watching Hugh Wolff, a world renowned conductor, lead the Nashville Symphony in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. It was fascinating!


Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/jeancliclac

Toward the end of the evening, it occurred to me that conducting an orchestra and leading a team have much in common. In fact, this analogy has become so powerful to me that I can hardly talk about leadership without referring to this example.

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Here are eight leadership lessons I learned from watching a symphony conductor:

  • Lesson #1: Start with a plan.
  • Lesson #2: Recruit the best players.
  • Lesson #3: Be visible, so everyone can see you.
  • Lesson #4: Lead with your heart.
  • Lesson #5: Delegate and focus on what only you can do.
  • Lesson #6: Be aware of your gestures and their impact.
  • Lesson #7: Keep your back to the audience.
  • Lesson #8: Share the spotlight.

Who knew that the world of music had so much to teach us as leaders? But it does. Leadership lessons are everywhere, if we only look.

Listener Questions

A quick note: If you are one of the people listed below, please send my assistant, Tricia, an e-mail with your shipping address, so I can send you an autographed copy of my book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

  1. Adam Rico asked, “If someone has aspirations to move into an executive position in their career, what would you recommend they do now to prepare for an opportunity later?”
  2. Ben Nielsen asked, “As a leader, how much do you need to know about your teammates specialities?”
  3. Gary Morland asked, “How do you get a team aligned to work as one and think bigger than their own interests?”
  4. Hanno van der Bijl asked, “How do you adapt to other people’s work habits if you are an introvert?”
  5. Jim Ryan asked, “What should a leader do when he has department heads who aren’t playing nicely with one another?”
  6. Kim Avery asked, “What is the best way to lead an organization from underneath?”
  7. Mike St. Pierre asked, “How do I help my people work independently without completely relinquishing my role as their leader?”
  8. Tara Chrisco asked, “What tips do you have for leaders who ‘conduct a symphony’ where the orchestra members play for many different conductors and the reporting structure is loosely defined?”
  9. Timothy Moser asked, “Do you have any suggestions for ensuring that commitment is genuine before relying on team members?”

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Episode Resources

In this episode I mentioned several resources, including:

Show Transcript

You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here, courtesy of Ginger Schell, a professional transcriptionist, who handles all my transcription needs.

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Question: What lesson from a symphony leader do you need to apply now to become a better leader? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    “A good conductor immediately turns to the orchestra and invites them to stand and bow as well.”

    The word which, once again, intrigues me here is the word “invites.” So much so, in fact, that last time you used it in the same context (in your earlier post about leadership lessons from a symphony conductor), I blogged about it in a post titled Do as Invited or Else.

    As the title of my post suggests, I’m wondering as to your definition of “invites” versus “orders.”

    To me, an “invitation” is something I am free to decline without unpleasant repercussions for myself. But when I must expect that bad things will happen to me if I decline, it’s not an “invitation” but an order.

    In fact, punishment in consequence of non-compliance strikes me as the very defining feature of an order, not the label attached to it by the issuing party.

    Clearly, any orchestra musician who remains seated upon being “invited” by the conductor to stand and take a bow will most likely be punished, i.e., severely reprimanded or even fired.

    So where do you draw the line between the concepts of “invitation” versus “order,” or do you use these terms interchangeably?

  • http://twitter.com/joannamuses joanna

    I was recently very fortunate to go to a concert classical composer Eric Whitacre conducted of his own works. A few things stood out about watching him that are a good example for leading anything else.

    At quite a few points during the concert he stopped to explain what the upcoming song meant or why it was significant. That made it much more enjoyable and meaningful for those of us who don’t have a strong classical music background and so wouldn’t have otherwise known. I’m guessing that more often than we expect there is people we lead (or who watch us lead) who could benefit from us slowing down to make sure they understand what’s going on and feel included.

    I was also really impressed by his efforts to go the extra mile to be innovative. He has a huge back catalogue of incredible but more traditional choral music he could have stuck to and still have had an incredible concert. But in addition to those, he did a very creative arrangement of a folk song from here in Australia that there was a risk people wouldn’t like (but in the end they really did). Definitely a boldness that can often pay off in leadership

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Eric Whitacre is my favorite living composer. Did you know he didn’t learn to read music until he was in college? He’s brilliant.

  • http://www.waynestiles.com/ Wayne Stiles

    I think it was Leonard Bernstein who, when asked what the hardest instrument is to play, answered: “Second fiddle.” Whether in leadership or in subordination, we struggle to “share the spotlight,” as you said, or to allow someone else to get the credit. But second fiddle is what many of us are called to play well.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Yes, true. In family, business, friendship, etc. At heart, you have to truly enjoy watching (and helping) others succeed.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Hah, that’s a great quote Wayne – I’d never heard that Bernstein quote.

  • http://harrisonjonathan.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Harrison

    I really like the answer to Hanno’s great question – I wrote a short post that deals with the question: “So in what ways to you make the most of your introversion/extroversion?”
    Knowing my introverted tendencies allows me to protect my “me time” so that I can be fully there for others (like my wife:) ) who are more extraverted. I have to take care of myself, so that I can take care of others.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      That’s a great example Jonathan – playing to your strengths and knowing your limits is critical to success!

    • http://www.leavingconformitycoaching.com/ Randy Crane

      Very good thoughts in your blog post, Jonathan. I am an introvert as well, and don’t consider it a weakness (or even a behavior pattern), though I used to. being an introvert allows me to bring considerable value that I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t embrace my introversion.

      • http://harrisonjonathan.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Harrison

        Thank you Randy – Amazing how things change, with a change in perspective!

  • http://www.stephenpbrown.com/ Stephen P Brown

    As a fellow Conductor I have spent many years sharing leadership attributes with people from all walks of life. The points made above are so tried, tested and accurate it’s really amazing how much of Western society fail to grasp the ‘relevance’ of symphony orchestras and opera in today’s world!

    I would, however, wish to add a 9th lesson: “Let them do their job.” This is at the heart of my own teachings. I learned from the podium at a very young age, which is to just let the workers do their work and to stop interfering – it’s worked wonders for me in music and business.

    Bravo, Michael. I’m so glad you are bringing this to the world! I’m sure you’ve also seen Roger Nierenberg’s remarkable work on the topic, too: http://www.themusicparadigm.com/

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      What a great addition, Steve. If you recruit the best players, then you have no reason not to let them do their job.

      • http://www.stephenpbrown.com/ Stephen P Brown

        That caveat is important, Michele, although even with players still learning their craft: show them and then step back to let them do it. You can lose a lot of energy, will, respect and passion if always trying to direct someone’s work for them. In the corporate world it’s called “micro-management.” Fails every time ;-)

        • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

          True in parenting, marriage and other relationships, too!

    • Jim Martin

      Thank you Stephen for the 9th lesson. Thanks also for the link. I followed the link and the site looks very interesting.

  • Tabitha wangui

    thankyou for your enlightment my question is how can be in a position to exercise my leadship skills in an environment where there is a limiation?

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      That’s a difficult challenge Tabitha, but I think one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard from Michael in the past is that you can lead within those limits. Regardless of your job or organization you can maximize your scope of influence – even if that scope is small. It reminds me of the old saying, “there are no small roles only small actors.”

  • http://forthisisthetime.blogspot.com/ Esther Aspling

    Thanks for the great points! I’m applying these tips to my blog and online presence, as well as for leading a small writer’s group I started. I can use all the help I can get! ;-)


    • Jim Martin

      So glad Michael’s podcast was helpful to you, Esther.

  • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

    Anxious to listen to this episode while travel today, but first wanted to say CONGRATS on your 50th episode! Not just the 59th episode, but tthe 50th dang awesome episode! Thanks for continuing to share your insights and wisdom as they are not only relavant for business leadership, but also for personal leadership.
    Live Beyond Awesome.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Jen. I appreciate that. I am loving the number 50!

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  • Kern D Lunde

    This whole episode reminded me of a great leadership quote by a conductor:

    “The conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful.” — Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I love that quote. Powerful. I have Zander’s book but have not yet read it.

      • http://www.stephenpbrown.com/ Stephen P Brown

        It is a good book – don’t delay!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Great quote!

    • Jim Martin

      Wow! What a great quote!

    • http://garymorland.com/ Gary Morland

      Benjamin Zander rocks – “the music pushed me over – that’s why I call it ‘one buttock playing.'”

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    For the past 4-6 months, I’ve been absolutely focused on #5: Delegate and focus on what only you can do. It was a long overdue change, and is still a struggle for me. When I see something that needs to be done, I just dive in and do it … to the neglect of so many other, more critical tasks. But utilizing my team and focusing my efforts is creating great momentum. I’m hooked!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Good for you, Michele. It’s not easy. Subconsciously, we often think it will just be faster if we do it ourselves. And, it is. In the short term. But delegation is essential for long-term success.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      You are and continue to be a source of inspiration in all you do Michele!

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Thank you, Tor. :)

  • Steve Hawkins

    When I was in the high school orchestra, our band teacher told us each week to “be sharp, be natural, but never be flat.” I still use his suggestion today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jolly.mokorosi Jolly Mokorosi

    You reminded me of Benjamin Zander (http://benjaminzander.com/). I loved every moment of the experience.

    • Jim Martin

      Thanks for including that link, Jolly. I went to his website and loved the quote by his father on the homepage.

  • Tony

    Thanks for the podcast, Michael. Some days I feel like I need to apply every one of those lessons! The lessons I plan to work on most in the coming weeks are #2 & #3: recruit the best players and be visible working with my team!

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Those are great points Tony – I need to do a better job with #8 as well, by sharing the spotlight.

  • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

    I LOVE the counter-intuitive nature of #7 – keeping your back to the audience. I never thought about it until you articulated it this way, and it makes so much sense. While we need to know the audience, focusing too much on them will undermine the quality of the product/message. That is a great insight!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Tor. It is counter-intuitive for sure.

  • mourijn

    You can take this analogy further, all the independent players need time to learn their part and excell and their instrument. The whole only works if all parts put in the preparation and are as good as they can be on the day. The conductor doesn’t need to be able to play all the instruments but must respect the part everyone plays, however big or small.

    I used this analogy as the basis for an awayday…….

  • Matt Biskup

    I listened to this podcast this morning. I came to the site and downloaded the transcript to make sure that I didn’t misunderstand what I heard. With that said, I must disagree strongly with point #7 (Keep your back to the audience), Michael.

    I think this is less than stellar advice and I invite you to recontemplate this point, in the context of top level leadership. At best, this is a point suitable for a line manager. I don’t believe that it’s a solid piece of advice for company leaders.

    Company leaders need to be intensely focused on the clients and their needs and how the work the company is doing satisfies those needs. And perhaps how the clients’ needs are changing – as they do rapidly in today’s business environment.

    The quicker a “conductor” sees that his audience has left the performance hall, the quicker he can perhaps make adjustments.

    I’ve seen too many companies that, to borrow a phrase from Adam Hartung, “Defend and Extend” their company’s current products as their company slowly sinks into the sea.

    I believe that for a mid-line manager “keep you back to the audience” may be good advice. But for the leader, I think the phrase, quoted here from your transcript, “…that can’t be your primary focus” is poor advice.

    I’ve seen successful leaders focus on their clients (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson) and unsuccessful leaders focus internally on the organization. For companies that are in the middle of delivering a well received product and are doubling down on production in order to take advantage of a temporary market lead, maybe this is good advice.

    But for businesses that are seeing their existing palette of offerings slowing in growth or downright declining in sales, focusing on the client is a better place to spend one’s time.

    Thank you for all that you’re doing here, Michael. I’m a fan.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Maybe this is a case of “we can both be right,”; it just depends on the context. I am not saying customers shouldn’t be a focus. But I have been in companies where there was no internal compass. They had no sense of mission. As a result, they constantly lurched from one “opportunity” to the next, exceeding the capacity of their teams and their own resources.
      You definitely have to look at the audience. Hugh Wolff, for example, made sure that there was an audience for Rachmaninoff. But once he determined there was, he set out to play it in a way that left his audience wowed. I doubt he would have entertained suggestions from the audience that he play ”Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf” or “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
      Perhaps I over-stated the case, but I think both of us are saying the same thing: I want to see outstanding execution to meet a real need that customers have indicated they have.

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  • http://earlbreon.wordpress.com/ Earl Breon

    First, I apologize for resurrecting such an old thread but I had to share this.

    I have been listening to the podcast for a few weeks now and just got to this episode. Listening to it was, frankly, a little creepy because I had just finished a draft post for my blog on this same subject. Needless to say my jaw dropped. It is always nice, for me anyway, to be on a thought plane and have somebody I consider a master to have already touched on it and, in a way, reaffirm where you are headed.

    Also, I love this line;

    “Who knew that the world of music had so much to teach us as leaders? But it does. Leadership lessons are everywhere, if we only look.”

    They really are everywhere!

    Thank you very much for all the great resources you provide and keep up the great work.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Earl. I hope you will go ahead and publish your post. I’m sure your take on it will be unique. All the best.

      • http://earlbreon.wordpress.com/ Earl Breon

        Yes, sir. I’m more excited about it now than before. Thank you.