8 Leadership Lessons from a Symphony Conductor

A while back, Gail and I went to the Nashville Symphony with our daughter, Mary, and her husband, Chris. Mary had bought tickets for Gail’s birthday. It was a magnificent evening.

The Hands of a Symphony Conductor - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/StudioThreeDots, Image #18995017

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/StudioThreeDots

The orchestra was conducted by the renowned Hugh Wolff. He and the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra. Horacio Guitiérrez played the piano. After the intermission, the orchestra performed Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45.

We had seats on the second row. I was less than twenty feet from Hugh Wolff. I was fascinated just watching him lead the orchestra. Toward the end of the evening, it occurred to me that conducting an orchestra and leading a team have much in common:

  1. Conductors starts with a plan. They start with a musical score and a clear idea of how it should sound. Only then do they attempt to recreate in real time their musical “vision.”
  2. The conductor recruits the best players. Great conductors attract great players. Mediocre conductors attract mediocre players. The very best players want to work for the very best conductors. Like attracts like.
  3. The conductor is visible, so everyone can see him. The conductor stands on a platform, so that every single member of the orchestra can see him. This is the only way the orchestra can stay in alignment, with each player starting and stopping at the appropriate time.
  4. The conductor leads with his heart. Great conductors are swept up in the music. They are passionate. They don’t just play with their head; they also play with their heart. You can read it on their face. You can sense it in their movement. They are fully present and “playing full out.”
  5. The conductor delegates and focuses on what only he can do. The conductor doesn’t do everything. He doesn’t sell the tickets. He doesn’t participate (usually) in the preliminaries. He doesn’t even make sure that the orchestra is in tune. (The concertmaster does that.) He stays off stage until it is time for him to do what only he can do—lead.
  6. The conductor is aware of his gestures and their impact. A conductor can’t afford to make an unintentional gesture. Everything means something. The flick of the wrist, the raising of an eyebrow, and the closing of the eyes all have meaning. A good conductor can’t afford to be careless with his public demeanor.
  7. The conductor keeps his back to the audience. Conductors are aware of the audience but their focus is on the the players and their performance. The only time the conductor stops to acknowledge the audience is before the playing begins and after it is finished. Other than that, he is focused on delivering an outstanding product.
  8. The conductor shares the spotlight. When the concert is over, and the audience is clapping, the conductor turns to the audience and takes a bow. A good conductor immediately turns to the orchestra and invites them to stand and bow as well. He shares the glory with his colleagues, realizing that without them, the music would not be possible.

All of this has direct and immediate application to those of who lead. You might consider attending a symphony with your team and then discussing the implications for how you lead your organization.

Question: How do these items relate to leadership? What else can we learn from conductors? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    Let’s say a member of the orchestra elects to remain seated at the end of the concert when the conductor “invites” the musicians to stand and take their bows. Most likely, that member will be disciplined for insubordination. 

    Personally, I draw a clear distinction between being invited to do something and being ordered to do something, the operative difference being that declining the former will not result in unpleasant consequences for me, while disobeying the latter will. 

    If I feel I’m being punished for declining—even if the punishment merely consists in drawing someone’s ire and the resulting souring of the atmosphere in direct consequence of my refusal to do as I’m told—it wasn’t an “invitation,” irrespective of what the extender of the directive may call it. 

    Nothing wrong with being ordered to do something. It may even be a privilege to receive orders from a respectable authority, such as a renowned conductor. 

    But still, I’d prefer to call an order an order, not an “invitation.” 

  • Timothy Fish

    I’ve always thought of the concertmaster as the better example of leadership. Sure, the conductor comes in and directs traffic during the performance, but during those times when a guest conductor comes in and doesn’t know what he is doing, it is the concertmaster that the orchestra turns to for direction. The concertmaster leads by example. He is down there in the pit and in the practice sessions getting his hands dirty. There is a danger when leaders take the attitude that they should “stay off stage until it is time for him to do what he can do — lead.” Such a person may think he is leading, but his people are all following their concertmaster.

    • http://www.ericdingler.com/ Eric Dingler

      Timothy, interesting point.  My thoughts have been different though.  I have thought of the concertmaster as a great example of a manager and the conductor as the leader.  The concertmaster does what the conductor sets as the direction for the orchestra.   The best manager will ruin any organization because their responsibility is to repeat procedures day in and day out.  A leader will then alter procedures to adjust to the future changes of the market.  If the conductor didn’t change the selection of music or invite a guest conductor….the concertmaster would simply continue preparing the orchestra for the same piece of music over and over.  The audience would shrink overtime, no one wants to hear the same concert again and again and again.  I think a leader should step away to have time to work on the concert and the dream for the future.  They can do this knowing the concertmaster has today covered.  A great leader will work on their organization as much, if not more, than in their organization.  

      • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

        I see these two roles as parallel to the traditional CEO and COO roles. It’s not that one is better than the other. You need both. The best concerts happen when both the Conductor and Concertmaster are passionate and competent—and let the other do his or her job. The same is true in business.

        • http://www.ericdingler.com/ Eric Dingler

          I agree completely.  Coming from a ministry background vs corporate…I didn’t first think of the CEO COO comparison, but it’s dead on.  

          It’s also an important image to keep for leaders to remember to make sure the musicians feel significant, accepted and secure.  Without the musicians, the conductor is just a guy on stage with his back to the audience waiving his arms.  A leader without followers is someone out for a walk.

          Also, thanks for the suggestion of taking the team to see an orchestra.  I plan to contact our local orchestra and ask to do this exercise during a rehearsal.  I think it will add to the conversation to see the “inner workings” leading to the final performance.  Who knows…maybe we’ll go see both.  The rehearsal for the training exercise, and the performance for a social and fellowship experience.  

          • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

            Great idea on the rehearsal. I attended a leadership course once where we got to sit with the Philadelphia Orchestra while they rehearsed. We literally were sitting with the musicians, looking at the conductor and hearing the whole thing from their vantage point. It was a powerful, powerful lesson.

  • http://gauraw.com/ Kumar Gauraw

    Beautiful way of putting the leadership lessons wrapped up in this post. Wow! Very refreshing tips about leading as a morning cup of motivation. Thank you Michael for this wonderful article.

    Being responsible for everything that we do as a leader, not worrying about what others are thinking or saying (keeping focus on the task at hand) are very invaluable to a leadership position.

    The higher up in the leadership position one goes, the less bandwidth he or she has to take it easy. Everything a leader does is an example and therefore it is a huge responsibility. I loved this part and I think that is the toughest standard to keep on a day-to-day basis.

    Once again, thank you very much. I really enjoyed the post and looking forward to the comments now as I know a lot of additional wisdom will flow through the comments now.

    Warm Regards,

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Kumar. I appreciate your comments. You are right about the additional comments. I always find them interesting myself.

  • http://chrisvonada.info/ chris vonada

    The conductor has to lead a team of professionals in a nearly perfect and flawless manner just to create a harmonious sound. What they collectively end up producing to the average ear is so close to perfection that we can’t distinguish subtle errors. They have to practice for countless hours to accomplish this. I think that to even endeavor to perform at this level on a day to day basis is beyond comprehension… but a worthy goal.

    This is an excellent post and thought Michael, a great analogy to use as a model for our day to day goal in leadership.

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

       As a musician, I know it is extremely rare for a performance to be truly flawless. But, as you said, the subtle errors are absorbed in the overall whole. One of the beautiful benefits of living and leading in a community.

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

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

    Let’s say a member of the orchestra elects to remain seated at the end of the concert when the conductor “invites” the musicians to stand and take their bows. Most likely, that member will be disciplined for insubordination. 

    Personally, I draw a clear distinction between being invited to do something and being ordered to do something, the operative difference being that declining the former will not result in unpleasant consequences for me, while disobeying the latter will. 

    If I feel I’m being punished for declining—even if the punishment merely consists in drawing someone’s ire and the resulting souring of the atmosphere in direct consequence of my refusal to do as I’m told—it wasn’t an “invitation,” irrespective of what he extender of the directive may call it. 

    Nothing wrong with being ordered to do something. It may even be a privilege to receive orders from a respectable authority, such as a renowned conductor. 

    But still, I’d prefer to call an order an order, not an “invitation.” 

    (I posted this comment earlier, but it seems to have disappeared. At least I don’t see it anymore. Hard to tell if a moderator nuked it, adjudging it “snarky, offensive, or off-topic,” or if it vanished due to a Disqus glitch.)

  • http://jrjarvis.com/ Joshua Jarvis

    Great one today! 

    Going to challenge you here, I thought #2 was a bit of a reach.  It’s tried and true leadership principle, YES, but how did you know that he recruited the best from watching the performance?

    Personally, I would have replaced it with, “a conductor calls the best out of people at the right time.” 

    A conductor doesn’t just lead musicians in a score, but he leads them to their best performance at just the right timing.  It’s multiple “Leadership Laws” in action at one time. 

    Love these kind of posts of everyday events that apply to our business/leadership lives. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Fair point. Thanks!

    • http://gauraw.com/ Kumar Gauraw


      Great commentary on the 2nd point. Reading your commentary I went to that point one more time and couldn’t agree more.  Thanks for very insightful commentary.


      • http://jrjarvis.com/ Joshua Jarvis

        Michael & Kumar – thanks – I even did a “reblog” in honor of this great post.  

  • http://www.RobTrenckmann.com/ Rob Trenckmann

    Great analogy here!  I especially liked #4–the conductor leads with his heart.  It’s amazing how much leading from the heart covers over a multitude of leadership ‘sins.’  

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

       I connected with #4 as well. Music (like leadership), must incorporate both skill and heart, competence and passion. Without competence, passion is like a river without banks, messy and dangerous. Without passion, competence is a stagnant pond, unmoving and with nowhere to go.

  • http://www.strategicplanningforgrowth.co.uk/ Jane Bromley

    Hi Michael. I love it! The analogy of a leader “orchestrating” the very best performance from his employees is so powerful. Thank you.  

    If only more business leaders used this when they lead their teams what “music” could they inspire? 

    Can I add a 9th point please? Conductors always seem to expect magnificence from their people- and this causes them to live up to that expectation. 

    In my experience, your no. 1, having an inspiring vision is key. We track the world’s most successful companies (companies growing profitably at 15% year after year). Less than 1% of companies achieve this. These organisations fascinate me. One thing they all have in common is a powerful vision. This aligns and takes productivity to unusual levels, turning them into a force to be reckoned with. 

    Take Apple for instance- Their vision is to “Make a dent in the universe”. Over the past decade or so they have been on a mission to take the functional, not too easy to use IT market and transform it into a new universe where photos look amazing, music sounds great, the tablets, phones etc are beautiful. Beautiful to behold. Beautifully put together. Beautiful to use. A beautiful symphony. 

    I could list many other examples of visions that are propelling these amazing, fast growth companies forward…… 


    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Excellent addition. I like it!

  • Jamie Chavez

    Great analogy here! I take issue with just one statement, however (that mediocre conductors attract only mediocre players). You are right that there is enormous competition for the very few slots in the great orchestras and bands; it’s like the NFL—there are a finite number of players on each team. At any given audition for such positions, hundreds of musicians will show up, though only one will get the nod. The rest will go back to their positions at lesser orchestras, or as college professors, or as freelance musicians (and so on). They will audition again and again (ask any player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, how many times he or she auditioned before being awarded the job)—in pursuit of this goal, and this doesn’t mean they are mediocre players. 

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Fair point. Thanks, Jamie.

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  • http://JaredLatigo.com/ Jared Latigo

    Very interesting analogy. I love it. The one thing I’ve always remembered about conductors was their ability to deliver an outstanding product all while not making one single sound themselves. Pretty amazing to think about in terms of our leadership and life. 

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

       Oh, wow. Hadn’t thought of it that way. Interesting!

  • Tracy Thomas

    Being an orchestra conductor myself, here’s an additional lesson.  Along with the great privilege of being a conductor comes great responsibility.  Your players are depending on you to LEAD!  A conductor who is clear, precise, and compels his players to follow his lead will produce some brilliant and exquisite musical moments.  A conductor who is hard to follow or lacks precision or passion will only produce music that is, at best, mediocre.  Thank you for your musical and leadership insights! 

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Tracy, great insight. I’d love to get your thoughts on something. Another commenter mentioned that an orchestra conductor leads a group of perfectionists. Working in graduate education, I find that we have a similar group with our students; they are often very performance focused and demand a lot of themselves.

      What have you learned about leading this unique group of people, ones who have high demands on themselves and one another?

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Great addition Tracy. It’s so true. If you’re not leading, are you really a leader?

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  • Ian McKenzie

    A couple of thoughts:

    A “great” conductor can work wonders with “mediocre” players. There have been many average orchestras turned to world-class ensembles through the selection of a world-class conductor.

    A conductor has to decide and direct. You can’t have each member of the orchestra playing their own interpretation of the music. The results would not be musical. There might be discussion and input on interpretation, but in the end, the conductor decides how the music is to be played.

    • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

      Good stuff, Ian. A conductor can discover what his players are best at and then utilize them to play towards their strengths.

  • http://twitter.com/srjf Simon Fogg

     reminded me of the Zanders’ book The Art of Possibility, see http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2537

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    I love this example as a conductor as a leader.  I’m a musician and appreciate any musical leadership examples.  Although it’s a different class, I recently saw Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler with his band in Seattle.  They opened for Bob Dylan, but Knopfler and his band were the class act.  One thing that really impressed me besides their ability to weave great songs together with a variety of instrumentation, dynamics and texture, was this: at the end of the show Mark went to each of the musicians in his band, shook their hands and patted them on the back.  I thought that showed, respect and class.

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Great story, Dan. Knopfler sounds like a professional.
      What would you say being a musician has taught you about leadership?

      • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

        Tough question, Aaron.  First, realize that musicians, like many creative type can have inflated egos.  This means there is often competition to show off, play better, faster, louder, etc.  I’ve predominantly been a songwriter and like to think I work from a more humble place than those who try to show off their instrumental skills.  What I’ve learned as a musician when working with a group is that in most cases the leader (which the songwriter often becomes) should let each musician shine.  Give musicians the opportunity to be creative within the boundaries of the piece of music you’re working on.  Allowing others to shine gives them a feeling of independence while simultaneously being part of the team.  However, there are cases when this just doesn’t work.  If you’re trying to record a slow ballad and the guitarist insists upon a screaming lead solo you have to offer him or her two choices: tone it down and work within the structure of the song or find a heavy metal band to play with.   

        • Jim Martin

          Dan, thanks for your comment.  In particular, I like your reminder that the leader should let each musician shine.  Very important.

        • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

           Dan, thanks for entertaining my question :) Your post came at a really strategic point in my day – let’s make others shine!

          • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

            You’re welcome.  I think allowing others freedom to do what they do best is a great strategy.

  • http://www.davidsollars.com/ David Sollars

    Michael, the conductor shares his passionate vision with the orchestra who actually makes the music. The conductor’s vision is seen throughout all the efforts of the orchestra and while often in the spotlight around the event, showcases the team during the event. Great points and nice to find examples in our lives that highlight these relationships.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      I like how you put that David. Guess that means the conductor also has to CLEARLY show his vision to the orchestra. 

      • http://www.davidsollars.com/ David Sollars

        Joe, yes, also well said. As Michael often says, it’s the leader’s role to showcase the vision, so that all can buy-in. Model the vision by the leader’s actions and efforts. Welcome aboard Joe.

  • Mark Furlong

    First time participant here.  Enjoyed the article and the responses.  I am not gifted musically, during family trips when playing “name that tune” there were many times none of us had a clue what the “tune” was, but the leadership analogies I get.  I also thought that conductors need to have earned the orchestra’s respect to get their full cooperation and they really need to know their stuff to lead a team of driven perfectionists.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

      Hey Mark! Welcome to the comments section! It’s a pleasure to have you here.

      It’s amazing how principles from one area of the world can play out and relate to others, huh? 

  • Kaylus Horton-Adams

    The metaphor of the conductor enlightened me to see leadership and focus from a new perspective.Thank you for sharing.

  • ozzyed out

    So from the perspective of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit….I would say that Jesus was the conductor…the Spirit the Concertmaster….and God, well, God is the creator of all of it. However…if Jesus is indeed the leader…being out in front where everyone can see….must mean that we, the players, can only do so if we are standing the Kingdom of Heaven all day long.

  • http://www.chaplainmike.com/ Mike Hansen

    Great illustration!

    A conductor (and leader) depends on the abilities of those he or she is leading to do his or her part. While the conductor is familiar with all pieces of the orchestra, he’s not the master of all of them. A leader, while having some (and often crucial) knowledge on a topic or specialty, might not be the specialist per se. 

    I think a conductor (and leader) also allows for individual “flair.” I confess my ignorance here, because I’ve never been to a symphony before. While the musician needs to stick to the notes on a the page, the conductor brings out the possibilities of the music through the talents of the player.

  • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

     This one hit me where I’m at: “Conductors are aware of the audience but their focus is on the the players and their performance.”

    In helping lead an organization, it’s easy to become hyper-aware of critics, and well-intentioned advice-givers. I’ve found myself becoming defensive and caring too much about that audience – and it’s been crippling to my leadership. I’m experiencing a shift in this right now, learning to rivet my focus on those I lead and are under my care.

    Thanks Michael, this gives me a great visual and metaphor for this shift I’m experiencing right now.

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

       Well said. Thanks for authentically sharing your current experience, Aaron.

  • http://twitter.com/JustWestbrooks Justin Westbrooks

    I love how each one of the lessons are permeated with humility. I recently had the opportunity work on a project that looked closely at how humility and leadership are connected, and it was incredible. I think if every leader were to begin to lead from a position of humility, their influence would grow tremendously along with the “joy” of leadership. Humility requires a daily battle to war against your own self-preservation, so it’s not always easy, but definitely worth it. Thanks for this post – it was a great, new perspective.

    • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

      Great point Justin. Good leaders are humble. There is no room for arrogant pride.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Excellent point, Justin!  Several leadership experts, including Jim Collins, define humility as the ultimate difference in the top tier leader from all others.  

      While leadership is certainly an ability that some folks are gifted with, it’s pretty cool that the “difference maker” of humility is 100% the choice of the leader.  It has nothing to do with skill or giftedness.  All we have to do is make the choice to bring humility to our own leadership.

  • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

    Excellent observations. Point six is something that really rings true for me. As a leader, we must be conscious of our actions and what we’re doing. They’re having an impact on others and others are watching to see where we’re going. It’s something I’ve tried to drill into those that are young and coming up into new positions of leadership.

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

       Just had this conversation with my 15 y/o last night …

  • Diana

    As a musician, I love this! I would add that the conductor also makes sure the orchestra members have the score, and the rest of the team has its marching orders!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      That is a really important point. So many leaders fail to articulate the vision and then wonder why no one seems to be playing along with the score!

    • Rachel Lance

      I agree, Diana. The players aren’t just playing what they think sounds good, it’s a very precise score & only the conductor knows the whole well enough to bring every part together.

  • José Russo

    My personal experience as an amateur musician about being conducted puts a special flavor to what has been shared in this post. 

    The real and great conductor is, first of all, a leader. It’s a person that conveys an artistic message: the spirit of the composer and the interpretation of a music execution based on his ideas. Musicians in the orchestra may not agree in the style or methods, but if the conviction is there and the motivation is in, then the message is carried out through music with no harm. It might be contradictory, but musical knowledge and abilities can be secondary when executing (a commodity if you wish).A mediocre conductor is normally a person with great music skills but no attitude to lead and motivate others.

    My musical experience has always been a guide for my learning process of leadership.

    • Jim Martin

      Thank you for sharing your experience.  Thanks for your words regarding this image.  Very helpful.

  • http://championforgod.com/ Jason Hoover

    Wonderful example and comparison here Michael! Number 7 intrigued me the most as I would not have thought about it this way. But you are correct. His back is turned but the others face the audience at all times! Thank you for the wisdom.

    • Rachel Lance

      That point gets me too, Jason. It’s a great illustration of the focus required from each person involved. There’s an inward, high-level focus needed from the leader as well as the outward, very detail-oriented focus of the players. neither can really compensate for the other – the leader must have both feet firmly on the podium watching and listening to every note, while the players must be firmly planted in their seat (and only their seat!), playing precisely the notes given to their part. Not much different from life in an organization.

    • http://twitter.com/cupojoegirl Eileen Knowles

       Number 7 was the one that stuck out most to me too.  I love the reminder that a good leader is focused on the team, getting the job done and not distracted by the audience. 

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

    Although surrounded by incredible individual talent, a conductor has a unique ability to lead these individuals to play as a team. If one attention-seeker tries to draw attention to himself by playing louder or stronger than everyone else, the end product sounds entirely different. The secret lies in the blending of all the instruments into one continuous whole, knowing when to emphasize certain sections and when to emphasize others. The conductor leads the entire group to see the benefit and beauty of the many playing as ONE. And the result is stunning! 

  • Steve Allen

    Great post! So true!

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  • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

    Saw the title and immediately thought of Benjamin Zander. I am sure you’ve seen his TED Talk. Dave Ramsey played it for his staff a few years ago and I watch it from time to time.

    Anyway, #6 and #7 were the ones that jumped out to me.

    Gestures (and physical behaviors in general) are a lost art. How we sit, stand, shake hands, frown, smile, rest our arms, lean back, lean forward. All of these are important. Leaders must OOOOOZE leadership. That means they must show it, speak it, and live it, not just say some catchy phrase here and there.

    If a conductor gives a great rah-rah speech and then goes out and yawns and moves about like he is comatose…that is an epic fail.

    On #7, I’m not sure I agree totally but I get where you are going. In this case, the team is important and the audience is ignored somewhat. But the audience is also the customer…so…it’s a weird parallel but I can run with it nonetheless. :)

    Love it @mhyatt:disqus 

    • http://jeremystatton.com/ Jeremy Statton

      I think the point of 7 is that we can all be swayed by the opinion of others when we need to focus on our job at hand. Steve Jobs is a classical example of keeping his back to the audience. He didn’t care about what people wanted, he made products that were incredible knowing that if he did this, then the audience will be delighted. 

      • http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/ Matt McWilliams

        Great points Jeremy. I was thinking along the same lines. I struggle with that…setting side what the polls/customers say in order to do what is right for them.

      • Bonnie Clark

        I totally thought of “The Art of Possibility” too.  Zander had the revelation one day that the conductor doesn’t make a sound.  He must direct, energize, encourage the orchastra to make the music come alive for the audience.  It is a good picture of leadership.

    • http://www.NateAnglin.com/ Nate Anglin

      Jeremy, good example for # 7. It’s not exactly that the leader ignores the customer, it’s more that they lead so the front level employees, the ones whom interact with the customer, have a profound understanding of what they need to do and what they’re capable of. It’s the aerial view the leader has to make sure all aspects of the organization delivers a great product or a superior service. 

    • Jim Martin

      Matt, I like what you said regarding a conductor who gives a motivational speech and then sends a mixed message later during the performance.  I recall hearing a speaker one evening who sent a mixed message.  The event was supposed to be motivational.  The speaker went to the podium just before he was to speak.  He seemed out of breath by the time he climbed the four steps up to the podium.  By his body language, he appeared to have just eaten a large meal.  He appeared tired and fatigued.  Did not fit the motivational event.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    7. The conductor keeps his back to the audience. This certainly translates into so many leadership positions. I’ve had the privilege of standing on the sidelines as a coach. You definitely hear what people are saying on the stands–good or bad; somehow mostly bad seems the preferred stuff of comments. You have to keep your mind on what’s happening in front of you rather than what’s said behind you. A good point to remember. Thanks, Mike, for the illustration and the reminder.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Great point!  

      For me, I tend to pay more attention to the negative feedback behind me.  Though, the actual mix of feedback is probably a little more balanced.  If I stay focused on what I’m hearing behind me, it’ll certainly be counterproductive.

  • Anne Sullivan

    I’m a classical musician, a harpist, and I have worked with a lot of geat and not-so-great conductors. I love the imagery in the post, but it is so far from the majority of the orchestra situations I have worked in, that I had to read the post twice.

    Musicians often have problems with alignment in ensembles. Having practiced our craft from our early childhood, we tend to have our entire personhood wrapped up in our music. Any comment from a conductor can seem like a personal attack. And naturally, after spending hours alone practicing every day, we often lack good people skills. Conductors don’t get leadership training either, Beethoven, yes. Michael Hyatt, no.

    So alignment for musicians becomes “alignment by contract” (I need the paycheck so I will play my notes) instead of “alignment by conscience” ( I will contribute to the musical vision). I have heard the grumbling start before the conductor puts the baton down.

    When I re-read this post, though, I saw a more valuable perspective, the audience’s perspective. Communicating the soul of the music to the audience is our purpose, our privilege and our great joy. And if all 100 of us onstage can keep our commitment to the audience in mind, true alignment, and a powerful performance, will be the inevitable result.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for your perspective, Anne. Very helpful.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Excellent perspective, Anne!

      Your second paragraph is a great example of a leadership axiom coined by Bill Hybels:  “Speed of the leader, speed of the team”.  Without great leadership, even great musicians can sound bad.

  • http://www.joshuarivers.net/ Joshua Rivers

    I used to play the violin in orchestra class. We were always told to watch the conductor for when to play, not to listen to those around us. The stage is acoustically designed for the audience, not for the players. If you listen to the others, you can be off a beat, and it sounds terrible.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      A great lesson on Focus, Joshua!

    • Jim Martin

      Life John noted, your comment really does bring out the importance of focus.  Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/quirkycity Heather C Button

    Having a musical background this really rings true. When I think of my experiences in an Arts school, the way our band conductor unified us was amazing in the rehearsals. His leadership was evidenced in the way he taught us to do 2 things. First, he taught us to listen to each other, and our place in the orchestra. We were given a chord. We were told that we each had to hear every instrument and balance ourselves accordingly so that we weren’t playing louder than anyone else, and that we could hear what was really important. Secondly, he taught us to breathe together. We had to close our eyes, breathe out, and listen to each other breath in, and start on our own. It took a few tries, but he had 80+ high school band members starting and stopping a chord together, all because we listened to each other. To me, that’s the true test of leadership. Can the conductor walk away and still have us find balance with our roles in the band (or company) or does everything fall apart?

    • Jim Martin

      Heather, thank you for your further elaboration on the image that Michael used.  Very helpful!

      • http://twitter.com/quirkycity Heather C Button

         Thanks Jim!

  • http://twitter.com/lakeviewgrants Micki Vandeloo

    I like the analogy a lot.  I think that many leaders can learn from comparisons like this.  Believe me, I have seen a lot of bad leaders that could quickly be identified by observation.  They clearly don’t exhibit these characteristics. 

    Michael, I find that your blogs really hit home.  I strive to teach people as you have taught me. 


  • http://walkwiththewise.wordpress.com/ Gail

    I like the point about having your back to the audience. A great leader (or manager) will have their backs to the audience and their focus on their team. If you lead, support, applaude your staff, your team, they will be much happier and much more productive than when your focus is on the audience, the customer and your back is to your team.

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Gail, I second that! Southwest has boldly taken this approach by taking care of their employees first because they believe, if  their team is cared for, they will care for the customer.

  • http://twitter.com/marcelkoning Marcel Koning

    I love this post, Michael. 
    Being a conductor and a manager myself I experience the great analogy almost daily. Maybe I could add another perpective here:
    The director is in the position to balance the professionals.

    There is a reason why the conductor stands somewhere in the middle. If you are trumpet player in a 4 person section playing loud, you won’t be able to hear the balance of the whole well. Even when you play really well. That’s when a conductor’s role comes in. Part of the work is to balance sections or individuals so that the piece sounds optimal to the audience. Even super talents aren’t always playing solo! 

    In leadership in general you have that balancing role too. You’re constantly busy getting the best out of the individual talents of your people, but you also try to make the sum of the individual qualities a masterpiece!

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Marcel, Thanks for bringing your conductor perspective. Reading your post, I think of how this kind of balancing plays out in meetings. I’ve noticed that men, in meetings, will often address the men in the room and not the women. Sadly, this is our cultural heritage; it’s mostly unintentional, but it takes some balancing. Being aware of it (hearing it) is the first step, and responding (often just asking for feedback) is the second. This metaphor just keeps on giving :)

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  • Bonnie Clark

    I think that the conductor has also ensured that there was proper preparation before the concert. 

    Michelangelo said “If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.” 

    Musicians clearly put in hours upon hours of individual practice, but when the orchestra rehearses together, the conductor can tell if enough time has been put in to learning the score and he/she allows the musicians to practice putting it all together before the concert.

    • http://www.clayproductions.com/aaron/ Aaron Johnson

       Bonnie, I like this ensuring practice aspects – reminds me of Jim Collin’s concept of great leaders creating a culture of discipline.

    • http://www.NateAnglin.com/ Nate Anglin

      Bonnie, your Michelangelo quote sums it all up. Mastery and cohesiveness is never built over night. It ‘s like the Bruce Lee quote:

      “I do not fear the man that has practiced 10,000 kicks one time. I fear the man that has practiced 1 kick, 10,000 times”

      • Bonnie Clark

        I also like Abraham Lincoln’s quote:

        If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe.

        • http://www.NateAnglin.com/ Nate Anglin

          Yes, great one as well. I’ll have to add that to my quote bank ;-).

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  • Morton-deborah

    These tips remind of a leadership tip I received from one of my first bosses; “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” This bit of advice has served me well throughout my career.

  • Pbnsubs

    If you have a chance to view Benjamin Zander’s videos or the book “The Art of Possiblity” you will hear his discovery:  conductors are the only one on stage who do not make a sound. They invite others to the possibilities they bring to the orchestra. The conductor’s true power is in making other people powerful.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    In high school, my choir sang with our local symphony orchestra. My parents were coming to the concert and I remember telling my mom she’d love the conductor. She reminded me that I’d have a different view of him than she would. She was right. I got to see his hair flopping to the beat, his baton cue the cymbal under his other arm, and his face light up as we started each song. She missed that. But she got to see our faces reflect his, she got to see his passion emulate from us, and she got to hear his hard work.

  • Allan Starling

    The conductor maintains harmony. Diverse instruments in the woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion sections each play different notes at different times. But when they all do their respective jobs,  the result is symphonic.

    • http://www.strategicplanningforgrowth.co.uk/ Jane Bromley

      Hmm Yes. You have just reminded me about a comment one of the UK’s Red Arrows performance flying team made- “Each one of us has strengths and weaknesses but as a team we have only strengths”. 

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  • Pbstubbs

    I am married to a musician.  Now I know why they are the way they are!!


  • Sharon Leukert

    I once had the privilege of playing under a conductor who also composed the music we were playing. Think conductors are demanding? Trying playing for one when you are interpreting his “life work” or his “baby.” If we didn’t play the music the way he had envisioned it, we left the practice halls somewhat empty. The greatest achievement was giving life to his dream.
    Perhaps leaders need to carry across the idea that this is their dream – their goal, their life work. Employees then have ownership, in knowing the dream came to life because of their part.

  • http://www.williswired.com/ Randy Willis

    Great post!

    Add me to the list of people who thought of Benjamin Zander, including his statement, the conductor is the only one who doesn’t make a sound.

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  • Alvinballoy

    The conductor carries a baton which is very light. It symbolizes that leader must lead with very minimal effort and not with coercion. He does not carry a police baton. A leader who needs to frighten subordinates before they do something is a weak leader. There is a place to scare people. But not in an organization with a symphonic spirit, or harmony as their goal.

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  • Samad Aidane

    This is a great analogy. There is a debate about how much a leader needs to know about the subject matter of the mission/project they are leading. I say that a leaders needs to know enough but not need to be an expert in each role needed to deliver on the mission. What is enough? Like an Orchestra Conductor, they need to have enough experience to know who is a good musician and who is not, who is coming in too early or too late in a given musical piece, who is too loud or too soft. They need to know enough to notice when the orchestra is working in harmony and when it is not. Without such knowledge and experience, charisma and inspiration can only take you so far.

    Samad Aidane

  • http://twitter.com/PromisesFC PromisesFinancialCch

    Brilliant reminders – a conductor is only as successful by making others successful by recruiting great competence, inspiring passion, meeting market demands and trusting all delegated tasks. Monday is a great day when the team is working well together!