4 Leadership Lessons Learned From Orchestra Conductors
An orchestra can be electrifying when everyone is playing in harmony but just one person playing out of tune ruins the performance for musicians and audience alike.
Ensemble performances provide a powerful analogy to the essential leadership skills entrepreneurs must cultivate. A symphony orchestra is a real-world example of teamwork, collaboration, discipline, learning, role clarity, execution and true leadership in action.
In addition to running a business and overseeing my wonderful team at SkyeTeam, I am an amateur musician (flute, piano and bassoon), and have performed with numerous orchestras and groups. Currently, I am the principal bassoonist for the Broomfield Symphony Orchestra.
Here are four entrepreneurial leadership lessons I’ve learned from more than 30 years of playing music and performing with symphony orchestras in Europe and America:
1. Have a clear vision.
An orchestra conductor has a clear vision for each piece of music, both tangible and intangible. They have a musical score that provides the detailed, line-by-line road map of what each musician should be doing at any given moment in the performance. This is the tangible vision. Additionally, the conductor will have their personal vision of how the performance should sound, the emotional interpretation of the music and, for me, the intangible vision.
How clearly do you understand your own vision for your business, and how that vision supports your strategy? As an entrepreneur, especially as an entrepreneur who is new to hiring and managing staff, you need to assess and solidify your vision first and foremost. Where does your team need to go? Why does your business exist in the first place? What is your game plan to achieve your most important deliverables, and is it as efficient, effective and right feeling as it should be?
Ask these questions of yourself regularly and watch a clear path to your business goals emerge!
2. Establish roles and responsibilities.
Every single orchestra in the world is rooted in clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The conductor will often be a musician (the BSO’s current conductor is a professional French horn player), but they don’t step in and actually play an instrument. They remain on the podium and align the rest of the players. As principal bassoonist, I will receive and play my specific element of a piece. I don’t try to play the trumpet part, nor do I take over for the second bassoon. I can step in as needed to support the second bassoon, or vice versa, but ultimately we can only play one part, our part, at a time.
Everyone on your team must fully understand and embrace their respective roles and responsibilities. Identify hand-offs and dependencies, and establish processes to ensure that decisions are being made at the appropriate level with the right people.
3. Provide coaching and feedback.
A conductor is not just there to keep everyone on time. They also act as the team coach, working to get the best out of each individual and the collective performance of the orchestra. They provide encouragement when needed (especially if there is a particularly challenging section in the music), and direction/redirection as needed -- play faster, slower, quieter, louder and so forth.
Coach and give feedback in a way that builds the confidence and capabilities of your team. Look at how well (or poorly) you’re communicating progress, direction and your vision to your team. Identify learning opportunities, skills that can be strengthened and gaps that need to be addressed. Learning is one of the most important aspects of successful leadership. Don’t overlook your own learning, too!
4. Lead from the front and be visible.
The conductor stands on a podium so everyone in the orchestra can see them. This is important when you are sitting in the back row, as the bassoons do!
The conductor doesn’t worry about looking silly waving their arms about. They provide the steady down beats that ensure the orchestra performs at the same tempo and starts playing together. They provide the appropriate visual cues, not because they don’t trust us to count the bars of rest (silence) in all our parts, but because they have our backs and want to ensure our performance is as good as it can be.
As an entrepreneur, you have to get comfortable with being “the boss.” Your words and actions will always be scrutinized and analyzed for contradictions and potentially hidden meaning. Make sure your communications are clear and consistent. Above all else, be visible and available to your team! Ask yourself: Am I anticipating the needs of my team and adequately communicating to them when I need them to step up and participate? Don’t just pay attention to the 'big'' messages. Be diligent, and be there for them.
Leadership is not a destination, it's a journey. It's a set of skills, attitudes and behaviors that need to be practiced, honed and mastered. In the same way as musicians and conductors spend time practicing and learning the skills to master their instruments, entrepreneurs need to pay attention to the "what" and the "how" of effective leadership. In doing so, you may just find yourself delivering a leadership performance alongside a team that earns a standing ovation.