Conducting is Leading

When I bought a ticket to observe Andris Nelsons’s conducting class at the Tanglewood Learning Institute, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch a brilliant conductor teach, but expected most of the class to be beyond my understanding. As it turned out, Nelsons spoke as much about what I consider to be core principles of leadership as he did about the nuances of conducting.

As he introduced the class, Nelsons said he hoped the audience would gain an understanding of the “mystical” nature of conducting. I have read many books about leadership and held a variety of leadership positions, only to conclude that the art of leading is a process of discovery that sometimes cannot be explained.

Nelsons spent a great deal of time talking about the conductor’s understanding of the composer and the importance of knowing what he is trying to communicate before stepping to the podium. A conductor must feel the character of the piece. and communicate with his facial expressions and body as well as the baton. He uses a variety of postures to signal a change in emphasis. I have always enjoyed watching conductors bend and sway and smile joyfully. I had not realized the degree to which this was not just self-expression, but an intentional form of communication with the orchestra.

Yesterday, during her Big Idea presentation at Tanglewood, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said that unless leadership makes people better then they were, it is only power. Leadership must be, as James McGregor Burns wrote, “transformational.” According to Nelsons, the conductor must transform an orchestra of diverse instruments and human sensibilities into a coherent voice that functions in service to the intent of the composer.

Nelsons reminded the fellows to conduct to the members of the orchestra furthest away. How easy it is for a leader, many levels removed from those doing the work, to forget that.

Every orchestra is different, and the conductor will have decide what works in each unique setting. Conducting, said Nelsons, is a diplomatic profession. Those of us who have led more than one organization know that understanding its particular culture is as important as the other skills we bring to the position.

At times, Nelsons told one of the fellows, the conductor must be in control. At other times it is possible to “go with the flow.” Clearly the challenge for any leader is to recognize the difference between those moments.

Nelsons was a forceful but respectful teacher. He asked questions and, even when making suggestions, indicated that the fellows would have to make their own decisions. One of my mentors would listen to ideas “a” and “b” that I had formulated to solve a problem and then, without any hint of preference ask, “have you thought about “c?” The decision was always mine.

When one of the fellows said that he was not satisfied with what had been played but that it was his fault, Nelsons laughed. “Orchestras love to hear conductors say that,” he said, “But if you say it too often they will lose confidence in you.” I have always believed that a leader must take responsibility publicly for everything that occurs under her watch while internally holding people accountable. Since leaders and conductors are in the spotlight, they will get the blame and the accolades. The blame must be shouldered, the accolades shared.

Thanks to this class I look forward to watching conductors with new eyes, but have also had a chance to reflect back on the leadership lessons of my own work. It was a privilege to watch and learn from Maestro Nelsons.