Leadership at the Symphony

post from Barbara Mitchell:

I’ve always loved
the performing arts—symphony, ballet, theatre, live music concerts…doesn’t matter
what but seeing a live performance is powerful! While enjoying a live
performance, it became obvious to me that, in addition to hearing great music
or watching talented dancers, I was also seeing examples of good leadership.

Members of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing
Arts are sometimes invited to attend a rehearsal of the National Symphony
Orchestra.  It’s quite an experience to
sit in the beautiful Concert Hall and watch the musicians come in wearing very
casual clothes as opposed to their formal evening attire, chatting with each
other while tuning up their instruments.  But when the conductor arrives, it is all

The first time I attended a rehearsal, I expected that the orchestra would play a few bars
and the conductor would stop and give them feedback but that’s not what happened. the way it was. The conductor led the orchestra
almost all the way through the piece without stopping. When he finally paused
them and began providing feedback it was clear that the musicians were
listening intently—he had their total focus. He pointed out specific bars where
he wanted certain instruments to play louder, softer, faster, or slower—all
from his memory of what he had just heard. He hadn’t taken a note while they
were playing—he was totally focused on what he was hearing. What an amazing
gift to be able to listen to so many sounds and hear each one individually as
well as in total!

When the conductor (leader) pointed
out the very specific changes he wanted to hear, his orchestra (team) listened
closely. He complimented musicians who had done something special and then they
replayed specific portions of the symphony. When he raised his baton, they were
ready to play at the exact right bar of the music because he gave them clear

What an example of leadership and followership in action.
The conductor as a leader demonstrated he was listening to his team. He showed
that he understood he couldn’t make music without them—he could wave his baton
around all day, but if they weren’t sitting in front of him, focused on his
direction, he would be totally ineffective.

Today’s business leaders could should learn to listen more
closely to their employees, praise them when appropriate, point out needed
changes, and acknowledge how important each one is to the success of the
organization—in other words, set clear expectations, provide frequent feedback
and development opportunities, praise when appropriate, listen to the team,
hold people accountable, and let them know where their work fits in the overall
objectives of the organization.  That’s

At the end of the first piece, they took a short break
while chairs were rearranged on the stage. Some musicians came back while
others who weren’t needed for the next piece did
not return. I see another lesson here about how leaders need to know the
strengths of their employees in order to put the most effective teams in
place—teams that take advantage of the strengths of the participants. This
piece featured a world-famous violinist. 
I wondered if the conductor would lead differently in the presence of a
star but it sounded as if she and the conductor 
were almost operating as one as she played her solo with the conductor
bringing the orchestra in to provide background and harmony.

Business leaders can learn from a symphony conductor and others
in the performing arts. Leaders must be great listeners who know the strengths
of those they manage. Strong leaders know how to put the best team together to maximize
the organization’s success. Leadership and harmony lead to great things—not
just in music but in the marketplace.

Manager’s Answer Book
is an easy-to-use guide written in a
question-and-answer format that focuses on many aspects of managing, broken
down into the following categories:

– Getting started—moving from peer to manager,
setting goals, managing projects, resources and much more.

– Developing your management skills—communicating,
delegating, motivating, and facilitating.

– Building your management team: hiring, firing,
and everything in-between.

– Creating your personal brand—building
credibility for yourself, your team, and your department.

– Managing up, down, and around—working with
people and functions in your organization.

– Avoiding potential land mines—conflict, change,
and risk.

– Recognizing legal pitfalls—navigating the haze
of laws and regulations.

is an author, speaker, and business consultant. She is the
coauthor of The Manager’s Answer Book, The
Big Book of HR
, The
Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, The
Conflict Resolution Phrase Book
and The Essential HR Handbook. After a long career with Marriott
International, she is now Managing Director of The Mitchell Group and works
with a variety of clients to help them hire, develop, engage, and retain the
best talent available. She resides in the Washington, DC area.