I didn’t realise it then, but my interest in leadership dates back to my time as a professional musician. Being part of an orchestra is a great schooling in how individuals and teams operate and perform both collectively and individually.
Before education and coaching its leaders became my passion, I was a professional bassoon player part of the woodwind section in an orchestra. Usually there are two bassoonists. One, the principal, plays higher more melodic solo parts interplaying with the other principal woodwind players. The second bassoon complements this with immaculate tuning, rich textures and an ability to blend into the principal’s sound. As a former bassoon teacher used to tell me, ‘if you can’t hear the principal, you are playing too loud…’
You can see where I am leading with this. The dynamics of an orchestra easily translates to many business and professional environments, particularly in terms of leadership and working with a team. The first bassoon enjoys vast interplay with other principal players while the second bassoonist, sometimes out of the limelight but integral to the operation of group, acts as the cornerstone, the anchor in terms of tuning for the entire section.
Bassoons enjoy a particular synergy with the brass section, the instruments sharing a similar pitch. And then of course comes consistency with the full sound of the orchestra. Were you all playing the staccato notes at the same length for example?
Such a multi-faceted approach lies behind much modern leadership practice. Think how important it is for a leader, just like a professional musician, to have excellent awareness and active listening.
There are few better examples of team working than an orchestral performance. The contribution of every member of the orchestra, and of every ‘team’ or section within it is vital to the final result.
A leader in an effective organisation will be like the second bassoonist at times: critical but not always playing the melody, out of the limelight but laying the foundation for success. At other times leaders will need to be out in front playing the main melody, perhaps a solo part or in tandem with another section principal. Sometimes they will make mistakes but that comes with the territory when playing a solo part under pressure: you put it behind you and move on.
As a leader you must appreciate the roles within teams, understand expectations and know when to focus on the micro or macro and when ‘active listening’ is important across the group.
The idea of creating synergy across differing facets of an organisation, learning from each other and mirroring good practice in order to create a finished performance is crucial. In an orchestra, everyone is a leader, whether a first or second bassoonist, trumpet player or first violin. Responsibility is distributed within a high trust environment with all members sharing in both success and failure.
I have had the good fortune to play at a professional level for world-class orchestras, and to appreciate their teamwork and leadership strengths at first hand. Now I can combine this with my work as a certified professional coach. I hope my insights will strike a chord with my clients too.