I was interested to read Pete Mason’s article on covert leadership a couple of weeks ago.  As we know covert leadership is a term that Henry Mintzberg invented to describe how leaders lead without obviously doing so.  He uses orchestra conductors to illustrate this.


Despite an orchestra being full of highly skilled professional musicians, conductors do not need to be able to play all instruments to conduct effectively but they do need to harness and extract the skill of others, influence and transform a group of individuals into a team.   Whilst I agree that each musician works independently to an extent,I do not agree with Pete Mason that ‘the experts, the musicians, work largely on their own, free of the need to co-ordinate with their colleagues, because they are all working from the same piece of music. In an orchestra, even though the musicians play together, each and every one of them plays alone. They each follow a score and know precisely when to contribute’. 


We can draw parallels between the orchestra and healthcare: there are highly trained, skilled, independent individuals who are experts in their field.   This aside, each individual section in an orchestra would not be effective without the other sections. This is the same in a hospital: each area needs a wider group to fully succeed.


A conductor is a good example of leadership but I am not so sure it is as covert as some might think.   When a conductor walks onto the stage the orchestra stand up, when a conductor lifts his baton the orchestra lift their instruments to start playing, the orchestra take a bow when the conductor indicates that they need to and so on.  When conducting the actual piece of music, despite each section knowing what they are doing, the conductor still provides essential leadership. A basic example of this is knowing when to re-enter. Musicians will either count the bars rest between sections or simply sense when to start playing but regardless of knowing this they will still look for the conductor’s signal to bring them in.   


My undergraduate degree was in music, I have many memories of sitting in orchestra rehearsals.  In an orchestra musicians work with each other to maximise the end product.  The end product will be different depending on the skill of the musicians but will also be different depending on the skill of the conductor as it is the role of the conductor to bring the group together.  Interpretation obviously plays a part but it is also due to how inspirational the conductor is; their boldness, creativity, drive and passion.

I spent hours on individual practice, hours and hours.   I also spent hours sitting in orchestra rehearsals (not so) patiently waiting for one group or other to get their part right.

However much individual practice you do to perfect your part it can be a very different situation when sat with the rest of the orchestra.  You have to react to the others around you; you have to consider them, hear how they are interpreting their parts and see how the conductor wants to bring everyone together.

Benjamin Zander, the author of The Art of Possibility, is known to be one of the most engaging and effective speakers of leadership in the world.    He also happens to be the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and uses the analogy of the orchestra to highlight how an organisation can work together as a team to maximise potential.   Zander talks about inspiring musicians to play on one buttock, once critiquing performers: “You’re on both buttocks. You need to play on one buttock. You can hold back, aim not to make an error and play it perfectly ‘on two-buttocks,’ or you can say ‘I’ll take a risk’ and dare to lean into the music with intensity, colour, humanity, and passion and quite possibly, in your own small way (and on only one buttock), change the world.  Play it with total sincerity and with your entire body, heart and soul, and you will make a connection and change things.   If you play that way, they won’t be able to resist you. You will be a compelling force behind which everyone will be inspired to play their best.”

A good conductor will challenge but at the same time they will enthuse the musicians and instil an amazing energy to inspire the musicians to play on one buttock.   They will make this look effortless and give the impression they are not doing much.  With a less skilled conductor the final results will be very different; yes they will get through the score but the orchestra are likely to be less effective, not perform so well, not maximise their potential and stay firmly on two buttocks.