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​Leadership lessons from conducting an orchestra

Apr 20, 2015

Michael Solender, Contributing Writer

There is nothing quite as impressive and majestic as experiencing a fine symphony orchestra performing a grand classical score. The exquisite precision, timing and intonation all coming together in a collective wave of music that can be awe inspiring.

A full orchestra may have up to 100 players, and if a chorus is involved, up to 200 additional performers. Shouldering the challenge of coordination is the symphony conductor, who has a very visible leadership role.

Making music is an often-used metaphor in business. Teamwork, coordination, discipline, role definition, flexibility, goal setting and execution are required success components for a symphony orchestra and are equally sought-after elements for the small business owner.

"Inspire and enable, these are the two key elements of my role in leading the orchestra," said Christopher Warren-Green, music director and principal conductor of both the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra. "I think so many business people gravitate toward the music metaphor because of the way the orchestra works."

Warren-Green explained that the conductor is akin to the captain of a ship with various "lieutenants" responsible for their specific sections of the symphony. The concert master (first violin) is the first in charge after the conductor and takes responsibility for the orchestra playing with a singular voice. Each of the section leaders take ownership over their respective areas, and they take their cues from the conductor, who sets the tone and phrasing for the scores being played.

Inspiring top performance

Successful entrepreneurs and small business owners recognize that getting the highest level of performance from their associates requires respect and strong communication from a leader who people are inspired to follow.

For Warren-Green, this means demonstrating passion and feeling for the work.

"If a conductor talks a great deal, it doesn't work. You have to show it," he said. "It's not simply waving your arms about. Performers can feel it from the podium. My job is to help them come together as one instrument, to play from the heart."

Michelle Hamilton is the vice president of development for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

"I don't differentiate between successful leadership skills required on the artistic or the administrative side of an organization such as the symphony," said Hamilton. "Successful leaders employ great communication skills and are adept at recognizing the strengths and motivations of the various people they work with and appealing to these."

Small businesses require operational infrastructures that their customers never see, much like the vast network of behind-the-scenes coordination required of a symphony performance. Business owners should place equal emphasis on front-facing and "back-of-the-house" operations in order to deliver excellence to their customers.

"The teamwork and efforts of nearly 100 people who are not performing on stage, yet responsible for our product, is amazing and what I love about this organization," said Hamilton. "I often marvel from the audience as to all the unseen people that make this beautiful music happen."

Finding self satisfaction from a job well done may seem counter-intuitive for feedback-seeking business owners, yet this is something artists have come to use effectively as a barometer of their performance.

"Of course we get immediate applause after a performance," said Warren-Green, "But audiences are often polite. We know in our hearts when we've delivered our best; we can feel it. Art is not selfish, it is not give and take, it is give and give."

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