Shared Principles of Leadership and an Orchestra

In presenting his views on factors that are critical to successful leadership, Mr Bernhard Kerres, who is a former opera singer and a C-level executive at multi-million-euro tech companies, took an orchestra performance as the basis for analysis and reflection. With his close knowledge of the world of music and his experience as a CEO, he drew parallels between the two at first glance very different fields. 

This article is based on a BMI Presents webinar titled “Performing leadership: what can business leaders learn from conductors?”. 

Focus on building trust

When a conductor cues an orchestra, nobody questions their actions, but rather all play neatly and cohesively since they trust their “leader.” The same is true in business – the crucial thing a leader should aim for is building trust with those they work with. 

Giving orders, interrupting, and adopting an air of superiority will diminish trust and negatively impact the team’s overall performance. In contrast, listening more, asking open questions, being attentive to detail, and showing respect will create an environment where people have faith in their management and their common goals.

It is also important to realize that, apart from pure business drivers, people are also motivated by the pursuit of personal objectives. A leader should pay tribute to these individual goals and find areas where they line up with the company’s objectives to build trust and rapport.

A vital point to remember is that building trust is a never-ending process. Even if you have worked with people for years, you should still strive to maintain the connection. The same applies to starting to work with new people – you first develop the trust first and then continuously work on it and the relationships.

Communication is one of the key pillars of effective relationship building. A leader should do their best to be transparent, direct and “magnetic” with others without seeking some concrete result. That will boost their chances of a positive outcome in terms of the relationship.

Have a reliable source of feedback

Orchestras have performance reviews, after which the conductor is given some structured feedback about their work. Mr Bernhard suggests it would be worthwhile to take the same approach in the business context. 

According to him, leaders get too much positive feedback, so they have limited opportunities for personal growth and development. They need someone who can challenge them. The person should not work within the same organization, and they should be able to mentor and coach as well as give advice on how you as a leader could change your approach to people and how they perceive you.

Create a shared vision and be ready to inspire

Music conveys beauty, harmony and emotion, and the people involved in an orchestra are all united by the same vision. Moreover, when they feel the conductor has a genuine desire to create something valuable, they are inspired by that idea, free of any ego or arrogance. The same type of collective vision is needed in corporate settings. 

Your job as a leader is to get people excited about the vision. Then they will want to follow you and be a part of the company’s strategic journey. It would be wrong to think you could boost their performance by promising a reward like a financial bonus. If people are engaged in repetitive tasks and you do not find a way to bring new life and energy to their work, you will be on the losing end.

Add an element of beauty to any task

When you have done something a thousand times, it can be tricky to maintain your enthusiasm. That is why you must try to instill beauty into anything you set your hands on.

Interestingly, even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which is one of the most famous musical mottos ever written, sounds different every time it is played. That happens because performers put their heart into it and do not blindly follow the notes. 

Similarly, IT specialists are often keen to write “beautiful” code, not just ordinary code that simply makes things work as they are supposed to. 

The logic here is that the element of beauty is like a breath of fresh air that can motivate people to do better. You can help them discover what resonates with them and encourage them to keep that as a reference point.

Don’t pretend to be someone else

You might mistakenly think that leaders must be highly charismatic and necessarily extroverts. But regardless of a person’s personality type, he or she can be a great leader in terms of actions and achievements. The takeaway is to be yourself, work hard and make your actions speak for themselves.

To sum up, leaders and conductors are to some extent in the same boat. Conductors see the big picture and connect the different instruments where they need to be connected. Leaders also pull things together. They connect IT, marketing, sales and other departments, for instance. It takes skill, knowledge and wisdom to find the points of convergence and make all work as a single organism to  realize an excellent performance.