Data Security, Network Security

Leadership Lessons from the Orchestra

By Katherine Teitler

American Tune

Leadership is a lot like playing in an orchestra. For those less familiar with an orchestra setting, let me explain. The basics: A traditional orchestra is made up of strings (violins, violas, cellos, and double basses), woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoons), brass (trumpets, French horns, trombones, tuba), and percussion (various drums, symbols, and other things one hits), plus keyboards (which bridge the string and percussion categories). 

All of these instruments play from a predetermined score (the written music) under the direction of a conductor (the person who waves his or her arms in front of the musicians), who guides the musical direction of the group. The conductor has the responsibility of interpreting the score, which means deciding upon the variations in tempo, dynamics, musical phrasing, articulation, etc., all of which accounts for the diversity in performances by different orchestras playing the same piece of music.

Now, one could look at what I’ve just written and think, “A leader is like a conductor, not the musicians,” but that would be incorrect. Unfortunately, a lot of people in leadership positions interpret “leadership” as “someone who gets to make all of the decisions,” but even this is a misinterpretation of a conductor’s role. Examining how an orchestra actually works illustrates why this is not only not the case, but is a bad attitude towards leading one’s department and direct reports.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken

Above I wrote that the conductor has the responsibility of interpreting the score. He (and for most orchestras, just as with security leadership positions, the conductor is more often a “he” than a “she”) conveys his interpretation through various means. During rehearsals the conductor uses a combination of arm movements and body language plus verbal instructions. During the performance, the conductor can only use his or her arm movements and body language to convey what is requested (N.B. “requested”). Rehearsals are key to getting all of the musicians on the same page since it would be easy for any two musicians to interpret the sweep of a conductor’s arm differently.  And consider this, in most professional orchestras, the appointed conductor only conducts the orchestra a portion of the time; guest conductors are programmed frequently to lead the orchestra through various performances (because, again, different conductors can help shape the music to sound differently). Back to rehearsals – for professional orchestras, the group typically only rehearses four times before each performance. Rehearsals are 2 ½ hours each, so verbal communication is especially important; the players need to clearly understand what the conductor’s hand gestures mean to convey. Again, you might be reading this and thinking, “OK, but you said the musicians are the leaders, not the conductor, yet everything you’re writing indicates that the conductor is in charge.”

The conductor does, indeed, shape the music, but it’s still up to the musicians to play the music. The sound that ultimately resonates from the instruments, and which the audience hears, is based entirely on what the individual musicians do with their own bodies.

And many times confused

To better understand what happens between the conductor and the musicians, let’s break it down further. At the beginning of this post I described the sections of an orchestra: Strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion. Within those sections there are subsections, for example, the violin section, the trumpet section, the clarinet section, etc. Each subsection has a section leader, the principal, and often an associate/assistant principal. Section members are referred to as “1st flute” (principal or associate/assistant), “2nd flute,” “3rd flute,” etc. Things are a little more convoluted within string sections, which have many more players, but that’s not important for the purposes of a leadership discussion.

The hierarchy of 1st, 2nd, etc. is important because as interpretations are getting sorted within the section, the section leader is the sound the other musicians follow. For instance, if the conductor indicates he or she wants a section to be played loudly—forté—the 2nd and 3rd players shouldn’t be playing louder than the principal player and drowning him or her out. The sound needs to be balanced. If the conductor indicates he wants notes that are indicated “staccato” in the score to be played very short, the musicians must keep the duration of their notes short but also listen to how the principal player is interpreting “short.” All of the players in the section need to match tone, dynamics, articulation, etc. The conductor can (and will) override the section leader’s interpretation if his/her idea of “short” or “loud” diverges, but in most professional orchestras in which I’ve played, there is a healthy give and take between the conductor and section head/principal player. When that respect doesn’t exist, the audience can hear it. The performance suffers. The audience is displeased.

Yes, and often felt forsaken

Classical OrchestraFurther, because what the audience hears comes out of the bodies and instruments of the players, the sound is largely dependent on them and the collaboration between the musicians and the conductor. Remember, the musicians play throughout the entire season while the conductor only conducts for a portion of all of the performances, thus the conductor must trust and depend on the principal players to lead the section in the direction he/she desires. The musicians are (generally) a tight-knit group, many of whom have been playing together for years (N.B. Landing a job in an orchestra is extremely competitive and a small number of positions open up every year. Unlike security jobs, the demand for a “seat” in an orchestra far exceeds available opportunities), and most professional musicians who’ve earned tenure in an orchestra don’t seek new employment frequently (if at all) throughout a career.

The result is a group of people who can anticipate and react to one another’s actions automatically. They know each other’s styles of playing and can fit “into” other players’ sounds like a second glove. When a new principal player comes on the scene, however, the rest of the section players have to adjust, and sometimes it’s quite an adjustment! A new principal player can ruffle significantly more feathers than can a conductor, again, because conductors generally come and go fairly regularly. While infighting can occur (just like with any place of work), the section principal must be a person whom the other musicians respect. He or she must exemplify confidence and authority without acting cocky or dictatorially (because A) the conductor could swoop in and change things up suddenly and B) because she/he needs the other section players to follow his/her lead quickly and relatively easily). The more respect a section head earns among peers, the more cohesively the section plays, which results in a superior performance.

Of course, no section plays alone in the orchestra; section players listen to the principal player for guidance and they all, in turn, also listen to every other section. Every line of music depends on another, so each musician is listening up, down, and sideways at all times. In addition, everyone has to watch the conductor see what s/he’s doing while producing all of the correct notes in the right time, at the right duration, at the right frequency, etc.

And certainly misused

Sound a little like a security organization? Good. It should. What should be apparent in this comparison is that no one leader exists within an orchestra. There are many musicians who have to lead at any given time, and every orchestra’s success depends on how every musician—including the conductor—performs. One musician playing out of tune can ruin an entire performance. One missed entrance can throw off the whole orchestra for several measures. In other words, a person sitting in the back of the second violin section can mar a performance if he or she isn’t listening, watching, and taking ownership of the music. A bad player can bring down everyone around him/her while a fantastic player can inspire and lead everyone else.

In corporate offices, many people in leadership positions take advantage of the job title and forget to listen and watch what’s going on around him or her. In the business of everyday life it’s easy to forget that everyone on a team brings with him or her certain expertise and skills, even the newest of newbies. It is therefore important to continually assess and absorb the environment—especially those who hold leadership titles.

When it comes to communication, communication is often a stumbling point, especially in a field that relies so heavily on technical acumen. Just like a conductor, though, one method of communication doesn’t always work and can be up for interpretation. As a conductor uses a combination of his/her arms, body, and speech to translate what he or she wants from the musicians, a good corporate leader uses fluctuating styles of communication with team members. Different styles of communication work with different people, but the key is transmitting the exact same message to everyone, regardless of style. Many leaders fail in this respect. The message can’t get muddled just because the style or method of delivery changes. Everyone needs to stick to the same score.

Further, a leader needs to elevate everyone around her or him. Great teams are comprised of multiple leaders instead of one person to whom everyone else reports. Teammates should be watching and listening to those around them, and bringing their ideas to others frequently, especially the person with the top title.

But I’m alright, I’m alright

A strong leader is someone who realizes that he or she will be better if everyone around her/him is also better—playing in tune, at the right time, with the same articulation and phrasing, when required. At other times, the leader (“conductor”) recognizes the need for opposing playing/actions/activities and dissonance (see Arnold Schönberg or Igor Stravinsky, the latter if you’re less musically adventurous). In security’s realm, this could be one person or team investigating an incident while others are hunting for indicators of compromise about a new threat, or it could mean listening to contrasting points of view on how to run a project.

The key (pun intended) to being an effective security leader is understanding that you’re part of a larger group, a section of players, if you will. In each section or team, there are supporting players and those with the “head honcho” title. Yet everyone, regardless of the virtuosity of the individual, plays a role in creating the end result. In music, the goal is an enjoyable, moving performance. In security, it’s ensuring the organization maintains the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of its systems and data. Despite the disparate-seeming outcomes, the leadership it takes to achieve the goal is a process of working collaboratively and seamlessly, regardless of job position.    


Get daily email updates

SC Media's daily must-read of the most current and pressing daily news

By clicking the Subscribe button below, you agree to SC Media Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.