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The Law of Connection

March 24, 2012

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number 10 (or, Chapter 10 as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of Connection.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand.”

The first words of this chapter are, “I love communicating.” These words give me pause. Think how we spend our lives as conductors: we communicate. We communicate with the ensemble, the audience, the music, the composer, our colleagues; we are constantly communicating. We communicate with our words, our eyes, our faces, our arms, fingers, bodies, and the perception of our communication is amplified when we are conducting. I tell student conductors, “an ensemble judges you within the first 20-30 seconds they see you. Not the first 20-30 seconds you conduct, by the way, just from seeing you in the room.”  How do you move about the room pre-rehearsal? Are you sullen? Smiling? Boisterous? Comfortable? Angry? Tense? Nervous? Happy? The ensemble sees this as the rehearsal is about to get started. They monitor your mood and your overall demeanor. Are you self conscious yet? At this point we haven’t even talked about approaching the podium and starting rehearsal!

(Does this face instill confidence in the upcoming rehearsal? Or do you wanna punch it?)

Maxwell names some communicators he admires: Mark Russell, Mario Cuomo, Malcolm Forbes, Colin Powell, and especially, Elizabeth Dole. What Maxwell likes so much about Dole was her ability to put her listeners at ease. Dole had a unique approach to public speaking: She often walked out into the audience and spoke among her listeners, not at them. Maxwell characterizes her talks as “forming a personal connection” with the audience. Maxwell cites further examples of speakers who were able to form a personal connection with their audiences – Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton – and stresses that this ability contributed to them being effective leaders.

“Effective leaders know that you have to touch people’s hearts before you ask them for a hand. That is the Law of Connection.”

As conductors, we don’t often consider the Law of Connection. As a matter of fact, many orchestral conductors seek to be aloof, removed and even personally inaccessible. I remember thinking as a young musician that to be an orchestral conductor one must be “closed off” emotionally. But, getting too personal by sharing too much information, or seeking the same from your ensemble members, is not appropriate, either.

(He’s a bit of a close talker…)

(No really. Tell me more about your personal problems. I’m listening.)


So, what’s the balance? We should exercise restraint in how personally available we make ourselves. And, standing in front of an ensemble is not the place to opine about religion, politics, or personal problems.

The Law of Connection can apply best to conductors when thinking of individuals. We often think of the orchestra, the winds, the strings, the violin section, but sometimes we don’t consider the individual persons in the sections. While the best oraters often convey a sense of personal connection, the best conductors have a knack for giving the impression to the ensemble members that they are valued as individuals. In other words: petty conductors often treat the ensemble as a vehicle, rather than a collection of creative individuals.

“A vehicle?” I hear you ask. Yes. Some conductors see their ensemble solely as a vehicle for their career, their self-worth, their position in an institution or community, etc. But, disassociation from the individuals in the orchestra creates a chasm between the conductor and the ensemble. As Maxwell writes, “It’s the leader’s job to initiate connection with the people.”

“The Tougher the Challenge, The Greater the Connection. Never underestimate the power of building relationships with people before asking them to follow you,” Maxwell writes on page 106 of the book. He then proceeds to cite habits of eminent military leaders such as Napoleon, who made it a practice to know every one of his officers by name to and remember which battles they fought with him, Robert E. Lee, who visited the men in their campsite before every major battle, and Norman Schwartzkopf, who was a very influential U.S. military leader. Schwartzkopf made it a personal policy to shake hands with every one of the soldiers under his command. While it was time-consuming, and perhaps even challenging, he felt that “people don’t care how much you know until the know how much you care.” 

In 1994 a full-page ad appeared in USA Today. It was contracted and paid for by the employees of Southwest Airlines, and it was addressed to their CEO, Herb Kelleher:

Thanks, Herb, for remembering every one of our names. For supporting the Ronald McDonald House. For helping load baggage on Thanksgiving. For giving everyone a kiss (we mean everyone). For Listening. For running the only profitable major airline. For singing at our holiday party. For singing only once a year. For letting us wear shorts and sneakers to work. For golfing at the LUV Classic with only one club. For outtalking Sam Donaldson. For riding your Harley Davidson into Southwest Headquarters. For being a friend, not just a boss. Happy Boss’s Day from Each One of Your 16,000 Employees.

Certainly Herb Kelleher had worked hard to establish the Law of Connection with his employees.

Maxwell closes this chapter with, “To lead yourself use your head, to lead others, use your heart.”

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