Lead Like the Great Conductors

The greatest conductors actually do not conduct; they just keep time and allow their orchestra to play.

Similarly, leadership can be about the process, rather than people.

TED Itay Talgam: Lead Like the Great Conductors

In this TED video, Itay Talgam played eight different clips of conductors and their techniques. Borrowing an analogy from the orchestras, he showed how management could in fact learn something about organizational leadership from these great musical conductors. Effective leaders are like orchestra conductors: just as the conductor is tasked with optimizing and harmonizing the efforts of each musician to create something greater than discrete individual performances, leaders are expected to do the same.


Develop clarity through vision

The primary responsibility of both leaders and conductors is to make sure everyone is on the same page, knows the part they are expected to play, and have the skills to perform. They ensure that people know what is expected of them, are given the opportunity to practice to their part, and receive feedback to improve individual and collective success. This is leadership at its best.

Similar with company mission statements, the conductor treats the score as sacred, using it to guide his ensemble to successful performances. Although he may slightly adapt it to fit his interpretation or vision, the score essentially remains true to its original form and intent. The conductor’s then must balance the interplay between the collective orchestra and the individual musicians to produce a unified sound. Although the instruments vary in tone, color & playing technique, the conductor blends their unique timbres together into a single musical sound while giving each instrument the opportunity to shine on its own. Similar to the leader mobilizing others through a shared mission, the successful conductor uses communication and vision to unite the musicians through a collective purpose – to deliver exceptional musical performances.


Encourage trust by developing synergies

Talgam explains that the great conductors were successful because they enabled players to tell their own musical “stories” simultaneously, as a community. As Talgam puts it, the best conductors are “doing without doing it”, acting as Theory Y enablers rather than Theory X controllers. Trusting that their players know how to play their music correctly, the great conductors refrain from controlling 100%. They focus on optimizing the efforts of the group rather than trying to manage each section or monitor specific notes played by individual performers. Similarly, effective leaders should assume a coordinating role. This enabling process creates conditions in the organization where employees are engaged to become partners.


Non-verbal influence over the process

Conductors communicate musicality and direction through their gait, facial expressions, posture, breathing, and gestures. This non-verbal communication illustrates Hackman & Johnson’s[1] view of leadership as an interactive process through which leaders and followers develop a strategy to achieve shared goals. By matching their behaviors with their goals, successful conductors use goal-driven communication to benefit the collective orchestra and better reach their performance goal. Leaders should gain inspiration from the conductor’s ability to lead non-verbally. Similarly, leaders should remember not only to communicate vision but also to embody their vision and goals. To engage followers in their overall vision and, at the same time, offer them the independence to use their creativity and expertise to achieve that vision.

As the future of leadership lies ahead in networks and especially so of highly educated individuals, I feel that leaders should look to rely on collaborative leadership styles in order to fully tap on the talents of each individual. Compared to the traditional types of leadership, collaborative leadership focuses on the process, not the people. Leaders should learn to take a step back to create the conditions in the organization for processes to take place, thereby enabling employees as partners of the goal outcome.

Before I leave you to enjoy the video once more, here is some food for thought:

How would leading an organisation entirely comprised of “creative types,” such as musicians, be different and/or more challenging than leading a broadly diverse group of people?

What other theories and concepts does the conducting analogy bring to mind?

I hope you managed to learn something valuable from my sharing! 🙂



[1] Hackman, Michael Z & Johnson, Craig E. (Craig Edward), 1952- (1996). Leadership: a communication perspective (2nd ed)Waveland Press, Prospect Heights III

[2] TED Talks http://www.ted.com/talks/itay_talgam_lead_like_the_great_conductors?language=en#t-1227413

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