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Leader of the band?

There’s a quite common analogy that compares the role of leadership to the conductor of an orchestra or a band. You’ve possibly even heard of leadership development programmes that ask senior leaders to actually conduct an orchestra.

[Yes I do have a very old video of my leadership/conducting skills, and no you can’t see it unless a lot of money is going to go to charity!]

Anyway, back to the analogy…

The leader/conductor, centre stage, indicating to the skilled experts around them where they should be and what they should be doing. Taking a great deal of expertise to build that connection with the players, the music and the audience. The emphasis and focus is on the power wielded through that person, front & centre. The maestro leader.

It’s a seductive analogy isn’t it? However, I’ve been wondering if this view on leadership is in fact weak or even out dated.

The Weakness in the Analogy

In all my experience, the greater strength & expertise is more so in the players than the leaders. Great leaders attract, nurture & enable this talent and represent it. In reality, they facilitate far more than they direct. That’s the source of their greatness in my opinion. Whereas less great leaders often direct and can’t facilitate. That’s their limitation. The role of conductor gives the impression of control & direction more than facilitation & empowerment.

Then there’s the isolation of that lonely conductor, leading the orchestra to their precisely perfect vision.  Perhaps a genius, perhaps charismatic but nonetheless performing solo in their own unique way. In organisations, a solo genius with charisma & vision may go a long way but any strength or value is naturally limited by that individuality. That creates a rarefied place where only the very few can succeed. Leadership is not about the lofty heights at the apex of the organisation.

Which leads to the value of the team that is built around the leader. The conductor may lead a large group of musicians and there may be hierarchies within the group. Yet the conductor is directing every player in concert. In many organisations the leaders value becomes magnified through the team they build around them and the performance the team itself creates. Directing & leading the players is usefully done through the team not just the leader. This comes back to my point on facilitation & empowerment.

So is the analogy of leadership and the conductor of an orchestra wrong?

The Subtle Analogy

The continuous lesson that leadership brings us is the power and potential of creating an environment for harmony & performance through collaboration & dialogue.  As leaders there is much that we don’t know and we need the perspectives & leadership of others around us to succeed. So I think there is a very subtle and meaningful gem in the analogy…

The art of leadership requires that particular expertise in building connection & trust between the players, the music and the audience.  Or the organisation, it’s purpose and it’s stakeholders.

Leadership requires us to build frameworks for working together. It requires practice and also collective effort. The leaders role is to ensure that what’s needed in this regard is put in place & well led. It requires leaders to be visible and accountable for the performance of the organisation. Acknowledging contribution.

The maestro that places accountability and orchestration front & centre is much more the leader than the conductor who alone directs.

If that philosophy doesn’t resonate with you and you favour the more traditional “Leader of the Band” analogy in  terms of leadership then this video & its lyrics are for you!


2 thoughts on “Leader of the band?

  1. I like you describe the analogy, and I reminded of Ben Zander (I understand there might be some issues of his recent judgement), and in particular a video where he works with a string quartet. In the space of 10-15 mins he transforms them from a collection of individuals who have not played together to a one a quartet whose individual and collective strengths are greatly enhanced.
    For the basis of the conference Zander is clearly charismatic but his intent and focus on the quartet is clear.


    Posted by Ian Perry | November 28, 2013, 8:58 PM
    • Thanks Ian – Ben Zander is interesting. Very charismatic and I’m sure both his presence and expertise create something special – what I’ve seen of him on video lead me to believe this! Perhaps he’s a great coach in the example you recall?

      Where I’m not sure if his example helps is the fact that Ben Zander is presented more as an individual rather than the leader of an organisation or team. I think my second point above may relate to what we see of him… “a solo genius with charisma & vision may go a long way but any strength or value is naturally limited by that individuality.”

      He is clearly a role model and inspires leaders. I’m just not sure if he exemplifies that particular expertise in building connection & trust between the players, the music and the audience. Does he inspire people to be a soloist or to build great teams?


      Posted by David Goddin | December 14, 2013, 11:02 AM


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