The Head as Conductor of the Orchestra – A Symphony of School Leadership

Estimated Reading Time:  4.3 minutes

Word Count: 1239


violin on table

Composed by Richard Yeates


Programme Note:


OK, I’ll come clean – I’m a musician.


I have always approached the role of ‘Head’ as a ‘conductor’- i.e. the director of a rather complex orchestra playing a difficult piece of music. It has all the hallmarks of seeking to draw the best from a varied bunch of challenging people. These artists have very different angles and skills and are playing a piece requiring a mix of working together, listening carefully, interpreting others’ ideas and weaving a way through some highly tricky passages.

They are playing the same piece, of course, and they need strong leadership. Without it, the whole thing falls apart. Individuals must come to the fore at times and yield at others. They must shine but not outdo. They must value everyone, even if they have an apparently small part to play. A crash of the cymbals can be the highlight of a movement if played well and in a timely fashion. It can spoil the whole evening if used clumsily!

In truth, as a Head/Conductor, one actually does nothing that can be heard or measured. But, you are very much in everyone’s eye. Above all it is the job of the conductor to inspire, motivate, excite and satisfy the players and the onlookers, as well as serve the music – which in this analogy is the well-being and success of the pupils.

A conductor must be in fine fettle. All can depend on them, especially with an inexperienced team. They must look after themselves.

One of the consequences of the challenges and pressures of Headship was that I found I needed to find diversions, refreshment and ways of sustaining my energy and focus when in the spotlight. I have a guilty secret. On returning home from a challenging day at school, I turned to watching an hour (or two) of some ‘boxed set’ or other on television. The latest of these has been ‘Designated Survivor’. While not wishing to compose a ‘spoiler’, it is essentially about a man who finds himself President of the US after all other plausible candidates have been blown up.

President Kirkman is far from the stereotypical presidential candidate and finds himself in the role quite unexpectedly. Even his closest aides have grave doubts about his suitability and expect his rather gentle, quiet and thoughtful personality not to impress those at home or abroad. However, after some ‘learning experiences’ (mistakes!) and periods of self-doubt, he starts to establish himself as a calm, wise, strong and successful leader. Indeed, it is his reflective manner and desire to make good decisions by consulting and drawing in talent around him that makes him strong and effective. Don’t rule yourself out from the ultimate responsibility – you don’t need to be a type, or like those who you’ve seen in the role before. You just need to be a VIP: Visionary; Inspirational; Passionate. Try using Sonata Form. It puts ideas into a coherent and effective format that can inspire. It can organise a variety of apparently disparate and challenging ideas so that a team can deliver great results for themselves and their audience.

Hence, my composition: The Leadership Symphony.

The Leadership Symphony


Conductors prepare well. They know the score, the players and the environment in which they are going to play. They know the audience (the pupils) and how to engage them. The conductor chooses the speed and the way it will be played, and has to make sure it fits the skills of the players. They know it’s all about performance – not just theirs but all those under their baton. They rehearse, practise and envisage how best to perform. They make many decisions about how best to play.



First Subject – Vision & Passion

Clarity is core to conductor role. They set the pace and outline the ideas. They determine the standard to which everything will be done, understanding the difficulties and barriers to success that confront each member of the team. The great conductor ensures everyone is supported and given challenging but achievable targets.

They believe in the music and are passionate about every note, every moment, every player in the orchestra and every member of the audience.


Second Subject – Contrast

Different people need different ideas and a variety of strategies. Conducting them is about behaving appropriately for the context – letting go when people have it within them to shine on their own and reining it in when control, consistency and discipline are required. The players also need regularly rewarding and it’s not all about money or even words. So, sometimes flexibility is enough or a smile of gratitude, a nod of appreciation and a confidence in them to take the lead.


Development: Inspiration

This is about developing and exploring ideas, allowing different people to contribute.

The conductor can often not play any of the instruments as well as the individual players. So, does that mean a loss of respect? Well, clearly it doesn’t need to. If they have the emotional intelligence to appreciate everyone’s role, their strengths, limitations and individual ideas and desires, the conductor can pull it all together whilst deriving the best from everyone.

Retain the principles and core ideas; it is then possible to develop the ideas, add to them, emphasise parts of them. You can take them to new heights in order to inspire the players and make the most of the opportunities on offer.

People can aspire to moving from 3rd trumpet to section principal; everyone’s contribution matters. Details and standards are critical. The conductor keeps their eye on everyone, even when they aren’t playing, as they need to be ready for when the situation requires them to contribute.



Persistence, Resilience

As strong leaders, we always need to return to the vision. When I presided over a merger situation I couldn’t believe how often I had to reiterate what we wanted to see. So, we always have to return to and emphasise our core ideas and principles – Clarity is without doubt one of the key elements of successful leadership.

We must also listen and adapt the ideas to the context in which we find ourselves. Just playing the same old tune again is not sustainable. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got – the world and others will be moving on and you will be left behind. The symphony can be long and tiring but there must be no sign of flagging. The conductor keeps them inspired at the first sign of tiredness or complacency.


Coda – Summing up

In a symphony, this is the climax and the end. If it’s gone well, people will know what they were trying to achieve and they will have achieved it. However, if there is a great conductor (the Head) and a great orchestra (the Staff) with an audience that is engaged (the pupils) people can find themselves to have done something extraordinary, something that was beyond their wildest dreams. Because if people are organised, inspired, motivated and working in concert, the sum of the parts far outweighs the individuals. It can be remarkable, moving and change people’s lives – now that is worth a great deal of trouble and hard work.

Most symphonies have three or four movements. This has only one (and definitely no slow movement!) but with different people and changed circumstances it can be worth performing over and over again!


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