Skip to content

Leadership Notes

October 31, 2011

After 15 years out “in the field” conducting, I decided to go back and get a doctorate.  I was ready for a career change, and the doctorate was a way to get the credentials to become a university conductor, which was my goal for the next phase of my career.  It turned out to be a life-changing process for me, both personally and professionally. One of my first classes back in school at Arizona State University was “Principals of Orchestral Leadership” taught by Tim Russell.

I didn’t know what to expect. We were told to acquire four books: Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, The Breakthrough Company by Keith R. McFarland , Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden, and Good to Great by Jim Collins. Note that not one of these mention music in their title and they aren’t written with musicians in mind.

John Wooden

ASU is the only school I know about that has a class like this. And, while I could go on and on about the effect it had on me, I think I will just address some notes I took from one of the lectures. 

***My class notes from years ago begin here***

A Leaders’ Domain is the Future whose Principal Task is Motivating Followers

Five Qualities of a Good Leader

  1. Leaders Model the Way
  2. Leaders Inspire a Shared Vision
  3. Leaders Challenge the Process
  4. Leaders Enable Others to Act
  5. Leaders Encourage the Heart

Leaders Model the Way

  • Passions Lead and Give Purpose
  • Values mean something; give clarity of your personal values; be sincere
  • Leaders have shared values
  • Leaders help people find their own voice
  • Leaders exhibit tireless work

Insipring a Shared Vision

  • Leaders are driven by the vision; they have a mental picture of “tomorrow”
  • Leaders provide purpose
  • Leaders understand what motivates followers
  • Leaders listen as well as speak
  • Leaders make enthusiasm visible
  • Leaders are authentic people

Challenging the Process

  • Leaders ask tough questions
  • Leaders experiment and take risks
  • “The Dream must be grand, but the process must consist of small acts”

Empowering others

  • Leaders create an atmosphere of trust
  • Leaders foster collaborations
  • Leaders accept personal accountibility

Encouraging the Heart

  • Leaders recognize people with public praise; they “catch” them doing something well
  • Leaders praise people with a specific personal touch
  • Leaders tell moving personal stories
  • Leaders spark a fire within, not under, their followers
  • Leaders celebrate values and victories
  • Leaders create a community of persons with similar values

Summation: Leaders recognize the importance of humility.


At the end of our semester together we were asked, “What have you learned from this class that you might remember in 20 years?” One of us said “nothing” (unwisely), while the rest of pointed out the perspectives that the class had brought us.

I think often of the phrase, “Leaders Model the Way.”  This seems to resonate profoundly with conductors: We ask our musicians to be prepared, but are we? We ask our musicians to be on time and be at rehearsal with a great attitude, but are we? We ask our administrative leadership to execute things in a timely and productive manner, but do we contribute to an environment that does these things? Do we, as conductors, on a daily basis demonstrate the highest professional standards we can?

The “bullet points” about leaders empowering others seems especially significant to me. Isn’t that the essence of what we do as conductors? Don’t we empower the musicians in our ensembles? So many conductors don’t accept personal responsbility for their actions and many do not create an atmosphere of trust. As a matter of fact, many conductors create an atmosphere of distrust.

One sentence from my notes above that really got me – “Leaders spark a fire within, not under, their followers.” What a great thought!

While I could write more about the atrocious leadership I have seen over the years (see one of my previous posts about “The Law of the Lid.”), I would like to end by asking you out there: What examples of GREAT musical leadership have you seen?

 Your comments are appreciated!


2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2011 11:28 am

    Recently I found the full-length version of a documentary about Claudio Abbado (one can find excerpts posted on You Tube–check them out). Truly his leadership style is very egalitarian: everyone knows he’s in charge, but feels fully empowered to contrubute to the process. One musician from Berlin Phil said of him, to the effect, he’s always asking us to listen, to follow the lead of others and to lead when needed–like chamber music. The result is a “citizenry,” as it were, fully engaged in contributing to “the society.” I heard Abbado’s Berlin band once live: Mahler 3 in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. I had been regularly attending Barenboim’s CSO rehearsals (as well as those led by Boulez, et al). Here was an amazing orchestra (CSO) going through its weekly paces and making a deeped impression on me each day as to their individual and collective brilliance. And then, Berlin came to town and blew them off their own stage.

    What is the difference, one might ask? The leadership style. The conveyance that one is the greatest musician on the planet, with all the answers, and musicians will follow based on one’s amazing talent (a style akin to a benevolent dictatorship, but authoritarian nonetheless) versus a leadership style that says “I am one of you–we create beauty together. Listen to each other. Hear and respond to the needs of others. Share. Take ownership.” In the latter lies a model for utopian society, and while utopia is but a dream, Maestro Abbado made it a reality in Berlin.

  2. Jana permalink
    October 31, 2011 11:13 pm

    I honestly feel everything I am today is because my high school orchestra conductor believed in me. He gave me a chance to conduct the freshman orchestra, and that proved to me that I could be a conductor. When I think about good conductors I think it is important to have a strong beat, but that isn’t what I remember. I remember the atmosphere of trust, of celebrating everyone’s success as your own, and I remember that he gave us the credit in every job well done. I can’t imagine where I’d be without him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: