Conductors: CEOs in a Tux

by Bibi Pelič

Another in the Series Music & Leadership, the Relationship between Music and Business

We’ve all seen conductors doing their job. But apart from waving their hands in the air, what are they really up to?

The conductor may appear on concert promotions, CD covers, television — but he doesn’t make a sound. His true power is his ability to make other people powerful. He must be effective in enabling musicians to play their best.

The musicians in an orchestra are professionals at what they do. They have independent minds and are likely to resent authority. Frequently they know each other better than they know their conductor.

At the same time they recognize that some form of leadership is necessary for them to perform together effectively. It’s similar in any business.

What is the music definition of conducting?

The conductor has to persuade others to accept his view of the music and so help him shape it into a unified and convincing whole.

If we make a list of general skills and requirements a music conductor must have, it will look something like this:
* Full command of resources/excellent musical knowledge
* Confidence in the art of gesture
* A good physique, a good temper, and a strong sense of discipline
* Everything’s in his head before it happens, and he “hears” it
* Highly developed eye contact, facial expression, and posture
* Motivation and leadership skills
* Ability to explain complicated ideas to people from different nationalities
* Ability to convince musicians that he knows better than all of them together
* Freshness – improvisation skills

How many of these apply to a business leader?

A joint music leader’s and business leader’s list would look something like this:

1. Vision
It’s all in his head before it happens, and he “hears” it. The leader directs the orchestra to go from detail to vision. Conductors, and leaders, rarely speak about their visions – they feel them. The vision is projected through gestures, eyes, voice; it pours out of hearts, minds and bodies.

2. Set the tone – “Give the A!”

At the beginning of a concert the conductor raises his baton and commands the oboe to give the A. He sets the tone for the organization, finding common purpose, building its face and profile, finding the soul. He determines whether the musician will feel that the conductor “is one of us.”

3. Power of Communication
The power of communication through eye contact, the height and use of the baton, and gestures of encouragement are motions most important for the conductor. The conductor is a leader who knows every instrument and considers every musician a member of his family.
His encouragement, support, advice, are immediate during rehearsal and while the orchestra is playing. Performance, appraisal and feedback take place at the same time. It involves verbal and non-verbal signals and is specifically aimed at performance.
Musicians in the orchestra do not “look” at the conductor, but they are constantly aware of him. The conductor is visible when things go wrong, invisible when working well. Mistakes are tolerated as a result of creative endeavor in the search for improvement.

In business companies, how is immediate performance improvement achieved? Can business leaders apply the conductor’s rich face-to-face feedback? can they give an immediate performance appraisal?

4. Trust

During the performance of difficult passages, if the musician is nervous, the conductor projects calmness and trust. With no trust, performance falters.

Trust between the leader and his musicians is a tacit requirement. They do not speak about trust; they do not take it for granted. A conductor builds it up over time through close contact with individuals, sections, and the orchestra as whole. Eventually they know they are safe in the hands of the conductor and he in turns knows he can depend on his team. A feeling of togetherness is created.

5. Passion
The conductor cannot and does not want to play any instrument. His role is to lead. He enables others to be the stars. A good conductor lets the musician play, as he/she wants to, even if it is against his vision. The flexibility to accept a soloist on the team is necessary.
Conductors lead with passion, developing a coherent vision over the long term. The musicians themselves are passionately dedicated to playing their instruments at higher levels of perfection.

In business companies, does management encourage employees to seek higher levels of perfection in their jobs? Do leaders have a passion that will integrate all the sections of a division or department so that they all understand what everyone else is doing?

“The most important is how to handle people, how to influence musicians by word, gesture, looks,” said German conductor Bruno Walter. “Human qualities have much to say. If the man is warmhearted, of sincerity, the musicians, even the more experienced ones, will listen to him. The demands are many fold, you have to be versatile.”

Good advice, whether you’re conducting an orchestra or a business. oo

– Biljana Pelič,,
is a professional violinist offering teambuilding workshops for managers

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