What if our leaders took a lesson from musicians?

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I've recently been reflecting on the nature of leadership, especially as I've been watching Luther students step into leadership roles in the music department.

One of my students, Logan Larson, is preparing his senior composition recital. Two fellow students, Will Heller and Jonathan Kobs, will conduct two of his choral compositions. As I watched them rehearse earlier this week, I was impressed on many fronts. Both Jonathan and Will created supportive yet focused learning atmospheres. They did not hesitate to correct the student singers when they erred, and the student vocalists were willing to respond to what the conductors asked of them. At the end of each rehearsal, I had the sense that what had just transpired was a genuine exchange of ideas, and that both the conductor and the ensemble held a shared vision of bringing Logan's musical work to life in the best possible way, even if that meant admitting that you sang a wrong note, or perhaps pointing out that wrong note to one of your peers.

These rehearsals were wonderful examples of the teaching and learning environments we aim to create at Luther, but they were not necessarily out of the ordinary. Every day, I see students, faculty, and staff at Luther excelling in leadership roles with grace, respect and authenticity. Imagine my indignation when I recently read these words by Stanford professor and organizational behaviorist Jeffrey Pfeffer in Time Magazine: "Sometimes, the best bosses have to lie and manipulate to save money and jobs. Often, they have to disregard concern for others. These truths may not be as inspiring as the latest wave of leadership fables, but they're backed by social science and knowledge of contemporary organizations–and they're likelier to help people lead."

Perhaps it's time to let the musicians among us demonstrate good leadership, and to use orchestras, bands and choirs as models of good contemporary organizations. Consider what needs to happen in order for a typical symphony orchestra to perform under normal circumstances:

-60-80 individual players must collectively decide to tune their instruments similarly

-the players must agree to play at a single tempo, decided not by them but by the conductor

-the players must agree to follow one particular leader, yet oftentimes, they must transition into the role of soloist

-the conductor must create an environment where players feel invited to play their best

-the conductor must be able, in rehearsal, to critique individuals or groups of players, but not in a way that makes them perform less successfully or accurately

And like an athlete preparing to make a three-point basket at the buzzer, a symphony orchestra player often gets just a single shot at playing that tricky lick or taking that solo moment and making it their own. It's a virtuosic, high-pressure performance environment.

Musical leaders can't lie to their ensembles—players and singers rely on honest feedback in order to improve and to receive verification about how they sound. They can't show disrespect or a lack of concern for their ensemble members—every member of a choir or orchestra is vitally important to creating the overall sound of a group.

Pfeffer's model of a callous and dishonest leader has yielded some interesting examples. We've just learned that the CEO of the largest automaker in the world resigned after it became apparent that his company fraudulently misled consumers and emissions testers about the efficiency and environmental impact of its cars. Perhaps his resignation will net him a princely severance package, but the damage done to his former employer is significant, with lawsuits already on the way.

Most disturbing to me is Pfeffer's notion that because social scientists have observed these disturbing traits in a number of people in leadership positions, we should therefore treat these trends as recommendations for how leaders should strive for success. For me, I'd rather have our leaders, both in the business and political realms, follow the lead of our musicians. More specifically, they should take a lesson from Will and Jonathan.

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce

Brooke Joyce is associate professor of music and composer-in-residence at Luther College. Joyce's music has been described as "vividly pictorial" by the San Francisco Chronicle and "exceptionally gripping" by the Los Angeles Times. His works have been performed by soloists and ensembles around the world, including the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, the Brentano Quartet and tenor James Gilchrist.

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  • October 9 2015 at 11:49 am
    Spike Maiden Müller

    Your observations on the synergy between conductors and performers and how it might relate to business management reflects my own over a 35 year period of performing in and conducting various school ensembles and amateur and professional choirs. Right on the mark! I have seen how a good conductor helps a group create consensus in their interpretation and I have seen what happens when certain of the leadership points you mention are handled less than well. My observations of managers in non-musical situations over the same time period have often left me wondering why many managers do not realize what you have done, that honesty and respect are the hallmarks of any healthy working relationship. Perhaps this is one reason why one of my favorite movies is Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait, although my love for that film is also due to a fine score by Dave Grusin and Georg Friedrich Händel!

  • October 9 2015 at 4:19 pm
    Thanks, Spike! Interestingly enough, some musical organizations, such as the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, have done consulting in the corporate world to help business leaders understand how creative people can come together and work toward common goals without stepping on toes or sacrificing to the lowest common denominator.
  • November 6 2015 at 8:30 am
    Alexandra White

    Brooke - Thanks for an enlightening post.  This an excellent examination of the core of good management--ethics are not a "nice to have", they are a requirement.  In our business classes here at Luther, we talk often about the real work of management is working with (not against) people, and how emotional intelligence is a better measure of a manager's potential success than any other skill.  Google found the same when it studied this topic --http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html?_r=0 .   -Alexandra

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