Here Are The Parallel Lessons Between A Great Leader And The Musical Conductor

Leader Lesson: From the responsibility to the stakeholders, to understanding what’s needed in the immediate environment and harnessing everyone’s talents, here are the common behaviors underpinning both the leader and the musical conductor.

This week, on LinkedIn, I came across a repost by the official Ted Conferences account (an account of the Ted organization) of an article from 2016 titled What great leadership and music have in common.

The article jumped out at me for two reasons. Well, specifically, two reasons I’m obsessed with. Two reasons I’m a junkie over. Two things that course their way through my life every day.

Absolutely. Every. Day.

Music and leadership.

In general, music is powerful. It can be visceral, crippling, creative, enthralling, enchanting — you name it. It can be different things to each of us, but it definitely serves as a daily backdrop for most of us.

And all those same things can also be said about leadership.

Anyway, beyond what stood out in the article title was what I found when I followed the link to the post itself: the banner image for the article showing a musical conductor’s silhouette, standing high above and flanked by those of their orchestra members.

Admittedly, instead of continuing on to read the article, I was triggered. I began jotting down some points about how the musical conductor is a great metaphor for leadership, personifying and embodying the best leadership lessons. There were always immediate and obvious parallels I had seen between the two disciplines, so it was always my intention to write a post about those similarities. The article’s picture was the reminder I needed to do just that.

And, luckily, the article only discusses the similarities between music and leadership. There was nothing about the commonalities between leadership and the conductor.

Now, in this post, I’m going to break those down, going beyond the fact that, yes, the conductor is the person leading the orchestra.

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Keep in mind that much in the same way there are different types of leaders and coaches across performance levels and styles, so are there as many different levels and types of conductors. For that reason, these points are a general overview; they won’t match exactly to every leader and conductor you see or hear about.

So, here’s my take on how a conductor embodies the theory of leadership.

(And, yes, you can say some of these are management principles. There can indeed be a slight overlap between leadership and management based on how you discuss them. But, I’ll break these points down as they pertain to leadership.)

They Study Their People

Both leaders and conductors need to be curious enough about who they’re leading. Both study their players to learn at which level the performer is operating and what needs to improve. And they both have expectations of what it is that can be improved, sharing what they know with their people to enhance that ability and sharpen their talent.

They Study The Tools

Both leaders and conductors are not only curious about their people but also curious enough about the tools utilized.  In both instances, the “instruments” are the tools of the trade – either the actual instrument for the conductor’s cohort or the processes and resources available to the leader’s group. Leaders will want to make sure they understand the tools in their environment, while conductors know enough about the instruments from either having played the instruments themselves or having a working knowledge of the instrument through working with others. In both roles, because of that understanding, they learn what is possible and what is needed to enhance the end result.

They See Everyone

Much like the musical conductor is typically slightly elevated above the musicians so that he or she can see the field of musical contributors, so does the leader need to be able to take stock of who they have in their charge. Yes, the leader might not always have their people arranged around them physically, perfectly organized by type of specialty the way the conductor has the instrument sections. Regardless, the leader needs to be mindful of as much of their field of team members as possible. Although the leader might not have direct connection to their people like the conductor due to number and depth of hierarchy levels, the leader is ultimately responsible for the performance of those operating in the outer ripples of that structure.


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They Monitor The Energy

Both the conductor and the leader keep track of and monitor what’s being produced, how things are rolling out, and how people are feeling. They are cognizant of who is doing what, taking stock of all they know of each performer. It’s an ongoing process for both roles to sort through the noise and know what’s taking place and who is doing what. Without doing that, all the work up until today is done in vain. Without doing that, they’d have no understanding of where the current output, quality, and tone of the environment stand. Without doing that, there is no ability to improve going forward. Only in understanding that output and energy can they execute what needs to get done, getting ready for the next step where…

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They Shift The Energy When Needed

Both roles understand what needs to get done and who plays which roles while in the planning and preparation phase. But when the work actually plays out, depending on the need, different skills and roles need to be called upon, empowered, and highlighted. The conductor’s movements and intensity rush and recede based on what’s needed by which section and player in any given moment. The leader, with his or her knowledge of the people, knows who has what role and can empower that person to elevate their performance to what’s needed in any given situation or instance.

They Know Who They Serve

Both leaders and conductors have their stakeholders – leaders with the recipients and end users of their service and/or product; conductors have the audience and/or benefactors to cater to. Both always keep in mind who they’re performing for. In the everyday preparation, they take a look at how they’re performing and assess how that compares to what it is they have to deliver for those who are depending on the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the group. And although they know who they are accountable to…

They Know Who Makes It All Possible

One of my favorite images about the conductor – and what should be the top and most important comparison between the conductor and a leader — is that although they are there to serve the audience and others with a stake in the performance, their attention is turned to those who are actually doing the work. To deliver for the external, they continue working on the internal. One side benefits from the other side receiving the lion’s share of the attention.


In that last point is where a good number of leaders slip up. They spend their time looking to the stakeholders (or the higher-ups), not paying attention to any of the points above.

They don’t study, know, or understand their people.

They’re not curious enough to study the processes or the tools of the game.

They don’t take in the larger picture of all the people they have in their charge, ignoring the fact that the success and development of everything in their hierarchy, no matter how far from them, falls on their own shoulders either directly or indirectly.

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They don’t stop to gauge the environment in which they’re operating. They work in what they’re doing but rarely on it.

They fail to accent the abilities of their people in the moment when they’re most needed.

In some cases, leaders don’t pay attention to the ultimate customer. In some cases where they do, though,…

…they look to the expectations of those on the outside while neglecting what is happening to those on the inside.

How do you conduct your leadership? How do you pay attention to all the details, both in the expectations of your end user and audience, and those carrying out your mission and vision?

Keep in mind what happens to the conductor when they don’t pay attention to the details of that which falls within the purview of their control – the notes fall flat and the performance suffers.

Pay attention to your people and what they can deliver for you. If you don’t, we’ll all know by the performance that’s given.


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