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5 leadership lessons from an orchestra conductor

December 16, 2014

As a young conductor Roger Nierenberg was always amazed to witness how a great maestro could so quickly have such a transforming effect on an orchestra. Within minutes the music would come to life with a new vibrancy and spirit. It was like magic. He could find no other explanation than the conductor’s charismatic personality and inexplicable mastery. He desperately wanted to understand–and to discover–whether such compelling leadership could ever be learned.

He concluded that great conducting can’t be taught. But he does believe that any conductor–and any leader–can make significant, palpable improvement. And for the people who must work under his or her direction, even the smallest advance comes as an enormous relief.

There are no silver bullets–no quick fixes to upgrade your leadership. But after much contemplation, observation and experience Nierenberg has simplified some key elements of effective leadership into five interdependent steps that any leader can implement to achieve better results.

1.  Develop a clear and detailed picture of the success that is worthy of your people’s deepest commitment.

Nothing captures a workforce’s imagination and ignites its energy like an inspiring goal that is worth striving for–that people are even willing to take risks to achieve. But this kind of vision is not so easy to come by. For a leader, solving management-type problems is tangible and immediately rewarding. But envisioning what might be can feel frustratingly vague and amorphous. You get no supportive feedback because it’s all happening in the imagination. It is far easier for a conductor to spend his time correcting and cleaning up the orchestra’s performance than it is to arrive on the podium ready to share a compelling interpretation that the musicians haven’t ever imagined. Professional musicians are always hungry for a meaningful creative challenge, and often even well-known conductors leave them unfulfilled because of the weakness of the vision.

2.  Define the gap that separates the current state from the ideal.

Now in front of the orchestra, the conductor, with his gestures and eye contact, invites the musicians to take up his vision. At the same time he carefully listens, assessing both the sound of the orchestra and how the musicians have reacted. Armed with all of this information he diagnoses the gap between how he imagines it could be and how it actually is. It’s a lot of mental work to carry out these three tasks simultaneously: project the vision, assess the performance and do a gap analysis. But it’s necessary. An accurate gap analysis is the primary way to show the musicians that they have truly been heard. And without that, the conductor will never establish the credibility and trust that make the players respond to his directions with energy and even enthusiasm.

3.  Define the action that your people need to take in order to narrow that gap.

The gap analysis is an extremely useful tool for the conductor, but it would be a distraction to tell the players about it. Instead he must first determine what they need to do in order to narrow the gap. How should the musicians interpret what’s on the page in front of them? What awareness do they need to develop? What should they listen for? What actions do they need to take? The more specific the conductor’s grasp of what needs to happen, the less likelihood there will be of wasting time and energy on misunderstandings that eventually erode the orchestra’s willingness to take direction.

4. Determine how to deliver the directions so that they will inspire those actions.

Knowing how to close the gap is no guarantee that the conductor’s direction will cause it to happen. He needs to persuasively direct the musicians so that they can understand, execute and hear the result. This requires some imagination from the conductor. Of course he knows how the music sounds on the podium. But his direction must be relevant to the musicians in their chairs, playing their instruments: helping them to perform their assignments more effectively and to find greater meaning in what they hear.

5.  Choose the right moment when the direction can be effective.

The musicians clearly understand that they need to follow the conductor’s directions. But they also have their own agenda: play the right notes, learn with whom they make ensemble, adjust their tuning to the other players, coordinate the movements of their bows, etc. Only when the musicians have some degree of comfort with those details will they be available to take in additional tasks coming from the podium. So the wise conductor chooses the right moment when the musicians have adequate attention to take in the direction.

According to the maestro, giving the right direction at the wrong moment has a very similar effect to giving the wrong direction.

Roger Nierenberg has conducted over ninety different orchestras, before hundreds of different organizations in twenty-three different countries. He’s also the founder of The Music Paradigm and a long-time faculty member of Linkage’s Global Institute for Leadership Development®.

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