Leadership Lessons from a Classical Musician


Having spent the past 20+ years as an OD consultant, I’ve had opportunity to work with many organizations large and small, lead change initiatives, team building programs, coach leaders and help develop greater organizational capability.  During this time I’ve also had many opportunities to observe leaders and teams, see what works and what doesn’t in terms of driving higher collective performance.  Reflecting back on my years as a classical musician, many of these lessons parallel the leadership it takes to successfully lead teams.

A classical music ensemble mirrors any group seeking to achieve high performance.  A clear charter is present, roles and value contributions are clear and leadership is ever needed to band separate parts into a conclusive and congruent whole.

In any ensemble, the first chair is the leader of the group.  This player is often the most experienced and most technically proficient musician of the group and generally plays the main melody.  The First Chair runs the rehearsals, helps others interpret the music, get their phrasing and dynamics right and pulls the best out of each player.  As the leader, they are ultimately responsible for the performance quality of the group – whether or not the ensemble is able to invite the muse and move people.

The most glaring misperception is that the First Chair plays their part and hopes the accompanying parts are where they need to be during the performance.  This couldn’t be further from the truth. What actually happens – the leader listens intently to what’s happening every second and fits their part in just right to pull it all together.

The Leader’s Role?

1. Keep the Big Picture Front and Center.   A composer wrote a piece of music to express an intimate, meaningful message for others to deliver.  Focusing on one aspect is akin to being lost in the trees versus seeing the whole.  If this happens, the performance will not meet it’s goals.  The leader’s role is to help other players see this big picture, keep it in mind, ear and heart as they play their parts.  Only then will the group come together as one and deliver on their charter.

2. Develop Each Player’s Ability to Contribute the Best They Have to Offer.  The leader coaches, mentors and teaches when necessary in order to get every player’s abilities to peak performance.  They understand the nuances of each player’s role, the part they have to cover and help people transcend current technical and personal barriers that get in the way of performing at their best.

3. Get People to Listen to Each Other, Fit Their Parts in As Needed, Where Needed. A good First Chair connects the group better to itself.

4. Cues and Real Time Corrections.  During performance everyone knows their parts (hopefully), has their playbook in front of them – and they also give attention to the First Chair who keeps the Big Picture in mind and cues entry points, dynamics (what to emphasize) and closings.

5. The Leader Listens Intently to What’s Happening, Is In Touch with Their Players and Plays Their Part In Ways To Tie It All Together.   An effective leader doesn’t just charge ahead with their own agenda.  A good leader listens, observes, keeps the goal in mind and fits their own actions in just the right ways to create a congruent, meaningful whole.

I hope the parallels offered above offer value. Play On!

This entry was posted on Friday, April 20th, 2012 at 4:13 pm and is filed under Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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