14 Practical Leadership Lessons I Have Learned From Being An Orchestra Director

Photo by nasa hq photo

Photo by nasa hq photo

The Life And Leadership Of An Orchestra Director

I think everybody has a certain perception of symphony orchestra directors, especially the top-end professionals. People probably view them as suave, sophisticated, jet-setters who have a pretty cushy job (yeah, sure, that’s me!).

While that may be true for a small minority of the top professionals, in my experience, being an orchestra director has awesome rewards as well as very unique challenges. This is particularly true of those of us conductors who lead volunteer orchestras. The musicians in our orchestras can walk whenever they feel like it. As music directors, we either lead them well or they will bail on us, guaranteed.

Over the last 16 years of leading volunteer orchestras (as well as from being a trumpet player under a bunch of great and horrible conductors), I’ve learned several valuable leadership lessons that apply not only to directing orchestras but also really to leading any organization.

14 Leadership Lessons From Orchestra Conducting

  1. Clarify the mission and vision. Every group is energized by its own unique vision and mission. If your group is not clear on what their mission is, then the organization will break down over time. As the leader, be sure the mission is clear in your own mind, first. Then, find creative ways to communicate the team’s mission on a regular basis.
  2. Model the organization’s values. Let me give you an example here. One of the values that I regularly discuss with my orchestra is excellence. If I preach excellence each week with my orchestra, but then come into rehearsals and worship services unprepared to direct them, I am essentially a hypocrite. I need to practice what I preach. Whatever values your organization upholds, be sure that you model those values for your followers.
  3. Communicate clearly and consistently. As a conductor, I have to be extremely clear with my baton, hands, and verbal instructions in order to communicate exactly how I need my orchestra to perform. My personal leadership pet peeve is communication. There are a lot of bad communicators out there, that’s for sure. I believe all leaders need to be obsessed with the flow of clear communication between them and their followers. Without good, secure, clear lines of communication, the team will break down over time. Communicate a clear, consistent message through phone, email, social networks, text messaging, newsletters, and personal talks with your team.
  4. Set high expectations. “High expectations are the key to everything.” – Sam Walton. The groups you lead will rise (or fall) to the level of your expectations. Make sure you are crystal clear in the expectations you have for yourself as well as for those you lead. If your people believe in your leadership, then they will do whatever they can to rise to your desired level of expectation.
  5. Be prepared to lead. Anytime you’re out front leading your team in a meeting, a project, or any event, be sure you have your act together. Prepare heavily on the front end before meetings or events, so that things flow well on the back-end. Come prepared to lead your team in order for your team to be inspired to follow you.
  6. Focus your best energy on leading your leaders. The most effective leaders understand this key principle. Spend the majority of your time leading and developing your leaders. Your team will achieve more long-term when all the leaders are leading at their highest potential.
  7. Be respectful of your team. Gone are the days of the tyrant director on the podium. Stomping around and yelling at your followers just doesn’t fly anymore. They will stop following you. You must lead your team as a group of (mostly) equals. You just happen to be the one who has been placed in the position of leading the team.
  8. Prioritize the work flow. As you analyze the work projects that need to be accomplished, be sure that your team understands the priority assigned to each task. Have them focus the majority of their best time and energy into those tasks that are the highest priority.
  9. Prepare the work environment. Your team will have physical, tangible equipment needs at some level. Make sure your team has everything they need to do the work you are asking them to do. Have everything set-up in the right manner, ready to be put to its best use.
  10. Quality practice leads to excellent performance. Musicians understand this concept better than anyone. The better my practice time flows, the better my performance will go. Work hard for excellence in the private practice room, in order for your public performance to match that same level of excellence.
  11. Be an encourager. “A good director creates an environment, which gives the actor the encouragement to fly.” – Kevin Bacon. Your group is going to climb higher, faster based on the amount of encouragement that you give them individually and corporately. I’m not talking fake encouragement, either. When you catch them doing awesome stuff (and you will), then give them a bunch of high-fives and pats on the back. Your followers will appreciate the sincere encouragement you give them.
  12. Praise publicly. Criticize privately. I’ve learned this leadership lesson the hard way, mostly in reverse, though! Here’s what I mean. Several years back, one of the leaders in my orchestra went on a critical rant during a rehearsal in front of the entire orchestra about something I did that he didn’t like. It really threw me off-balance the rest of the evening. The next day, I set-up a time to have lunch with this individual. When we met for lunch a few days later, I shared with him this principle. I simply and politely asked him that when he had a specific problem with my leadership, if we could meet privately to discuss the issue. I didn’t think our rehearsal time was the best time to “air our grievances.” Thankfully, we have never had another issue, since!
  13. Celebrate the victories. Honestly, I always struggle with this one. I’m the type of leader that has the tendency to move on to the next project as soon as possible. Take time to publicly “bask in the glory” of a job well done with your team.
  14. Quietly analyze the defeats. While victories should be celebrated publicly, your team’s defeats should be analyzed privately. Meet with the various leaders of your team to determine why you failed and how the failure can be corrected. Turn your team’s immediate failures into learning and growth opportunities for future wins.

Questions: Of these 14 leadership lessons, which ones do you personally embrace? Which ones are new concepts for you? What leadership lessons have you learned and developed in your specific career field? Feel free to leave a comment and share with this community.