Conducting Joy

leadership Dec 08, 2019

Written by Ed Cook

While watching a symphony or orchestra or choir, I’ve often wondered what the value of a conductor is to the other musicians. Afterall other music groups seem to do fine without one. Rock bands, jazz groups, a cappella ensembles, all manage without a conductor. I got an interesting glimpse into just what a conductor does after viewing this smile-inducing clip. A professional ensemble sets up on a city street with a sign that invites passersby to “conduct us.” We are then treated to a series of would-be conductors who produce...what? The ensemble does not need them to create music. Yet each of these conductors brings something special...joy!

As the first conductor steps forward, the glee on the faces of the musicians is striking. They are truly ready to take on whatever the conductor can provide. As each new conductor steps forward, we see some take on a persona of a conductor, some test the limits of their powers by spotlighting a particular musician, some add clearly nonstandard moves to see where it leads. Even a city cop steps up and gives it a try. It’s a wonderful scene. As a metaphor for leadership, it is powerful. The conductor is not bringing better technical music. The musicians clearly have that handled. The conductor is bringing joy. Their own unique and fully realized version of joy. None is better than another. They are all precious.

What if achieving joy is truly the role of a leader (conductor, team captain, CEO, foreman)? This does not negate the need for proficiency in the technical skills of the job, but those are inputs to the process. Perhaps joy should be the leader’s output. The rest of the team can create the outcome of the group (music, points, profits, quality).

Currently, the Richmond Symphony is in the process of finding a new conductor. With amazing candidates, the leaders of the symphony have constructed a significant program where each candidate will lead the symphony through several performances, but will also meet the public, talk with city leaders, and generally engage with the City of Richmond. Certainly, the skills of each candidate will be on display. Each will show their ability to conduct the musicians, select the energy of the performance, and even demonstrate their thinking on the future of the symphony, but I suspect there will be another important criterion as well. The musicians will imagine rehearsals and judge if they will be joyful. City leaders will consider if a prospective conductor will add to the joy of the city. Patrons of the symphony will imagine performances in the future and search to find the special joy that this conductor could bring.

A useful distinction between manager and leader is that managers focus on outcomes and leaders focus on teams. Think of the team that you look back upon as your favorite. Joy was likely at the center of that experience. Reflect on that experience and go find your place for conducting joy!

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