What does a good leader and an orchestra have in common?

For those of you fortunate enough to have attended a live orchestra performance, the thrill and anticipation of seeing a group of people, working in harmony to create blissful sounds is a moving experience.  My favourite composition is British composer, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, showcasing every single instrument within the orchestra, before bringing together the whole ensemble in a moving finale.  I’d been listening to this piece whilst  mulling over a situation faced by an old colleague.  Her boss was making many changes, but the management team were having a hard time putting together the pieces to understand why and how to react.  I reflected on the problem, and came up with the conductor analogy.

All good leaders are like conductors: As the conductor  raises his baton, a hushed silence descends the audience and the musicians ready themselves to play their instruments.  All eyes are on the conductor as his baton begins to move and the orchestra begins to play.  He pays attention to the pace, volume and rhythm, ensuring that through his body movement and eye contact, the recital is delivered flawlessly.  He guides a whole orchestra of musicians through the music, without the need to directly communicate to each of them, he manages to coordinate and fine tune the delivery, throughout the recital.  In the same way, a good leader will oversee his function or business, paying attention to the many different moving parts of the business, clearly focused on the goals, and ensuring that each component team delivers.  Like the conductor who does not play any instrument, the leader will not be responsible for actual delivery, but for ensuring that all teams are confident and competent to deliver, that they understand their role, and can work in harmony. Where necessary, good leaders step in to course correct, but quickly step away again once the team is back on track.

An orchestra without a conductor gets out of sync: Without a conductor, it is hard for an orchestra to stay on time and in tune. They may look to one another to keep the right pace, but it’s hard when everyone is playing their own music and playing their own instrument.  In the same way, when a leader is absent or not clearly visible, teams will start to become more insular, focusing on their own goals, and making sure that their own goals are prioritised over other.  The invisible or absent leader is not there to ensure everyone faces forward and works together. Even where one team may be succeeding, the overall net result is less productive.  Leaders need to be present, but also visible.

The musical score is the conductor’s plan: So how would an orchestra sound if the conductor did not have a musical score to follow?  If the musicians had learned their part off by heart, it should all still work to some extent.  But as the music progresses, with the conductor unsure and not able to follow the score, things would start to sound off. By the end of the recital, everyone, including the conductor would feel stressed and confused, and I’m sure the audience would be disappointed.  For a leader, the conductor’s score is their strategy and the supporting plan.  If they don’t have a plan, flying by the seat of their pants will only take them so far.  The conductor’s score unites the orchestra around a single performance, allowing them to focus on what needs to be done.  The is unity and clarity, and the conductor’s skills bring the unique version to life.  Leaders need a plan, and that plan needs to be communicated, so that everyone knows their role and their responsibilities.  The leader’s skill is bringing their own unique style  as they help the team interpret and deliver the plan.

The musical notes can change, but they still need to fit the score: Quite often composers are also conductors.  As they lead an orchestra through a new piece of music, hearing the sounds together may mean that they change some of the notes in the score.  This is fine, as long as the changes enhance the overall harmony.  Sometimes, a change may not sound harmonious and the score needs to be restored to the original variant.  As with strategies, once defined, they may well evolve.  Actions will change, but as long as they still successfully contribute to the overall strategy, and are clearly communicated, this works well. Where a change is not communicated, or contradicts other actions, the resultant discord needs to be addressed.  Each note on the score, and each action within the strategy needs to amplify, not drown out the preceding items.

So when I mentioned to my old colleague that the conductor needs his score, she was somewhat confused – obviously I explained my analogy in a little more detail to expand on my statement.  She’s now able to raise the matter to her boss, and request visibility of the plan to help engage and implement the changes.  As leaders or line managers, we should reflect – are we conducting our orchestra without a score?  Maybe we are part of the orchestra and can’t see our conductor?  Time to speak up and ensure that your recital sounds as wonderful as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra!


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