Leadership Agility through the Metaphor of Music

Music represents a comprehensive view of different leadership styles. Given the pace of change and the complexity and ambiguity of modern life, it’s important to be able to flex your leadership style based on the context and situation.  Music holds some secrets for doing just that.

In classical music, for example, there’s a conductor who leads through acts of orchestration, selecting talent, directing and inspiring at scale. In world of folk music, the melody and rhythms emerge from the collective ensemble, from interdependent interlocking parts–similar to a collaborative team conversation.

And in jazz, there’s a focus on being able to adapt and change, riff, and innovate in the moment, to shift between soloing and providing support for other talents to shine. To do so requires embodied presence, awareness, and discipline, the kinds of skills that are useful for acting in the face of uncertainty and without a guaranteed outcome.

Combined as a flexible palette of leadership styles, orchestration, collaboration, and improvisation can be used in a variety of situations to produce different impacts at the enterprise, team, and individual levels. (See chart below.)

Strengths vs. range. The idea of stretching your leadership style to maximize your effectiveness as a leader does not negate the current trend toward understanding and making the most of your personal and professional strengths. Both viewpoints have their relative merits. For example, if a leader is not adept at facilitating certain team conversations, he or she can invest in a coach to help them develop this key skill, and/or, they can enlist the help of one of their team members to do so instead. Oftentimes, these two different solutions occur simultaneously. One is a longer developmental solution; the other a shorter term one.

When should you use one of these leadership styles over another?

There’s no exact formula but here are some guidelines:

  1. Orchestrated leadership (organization = orchestra)

    Context: This style of leadership is most appropriate for beginning a new initiative, at the start of a reorganization, in preparing for or navigating an acquisition or merger, when speaking to a larger group (more than 20 people), selecting talent and building a team, clarifying strategy and direction, or fine-tuning implementation. You’ll need to balance task and relationships here to ensure precise outcomes as well as creating a positive environment to maximize and sustain engagement and creativity.  Think of your role as an executive producer. You goal is not to micromanage your team, but to encourage, inspire, delegate, build trust, and let go. Your focus should be on managing your energy, attitude, and presence as these things speak louder than just words alone. Your intention and how you show up as a leader and treat others need to be aligned.

    Goals: Conduct and inspire talent across silos; create team integration and cohesion

    Actions: Direct, inspire, align, and harmonize talent


    • Clarify your intention
    • Share compelling stories
    • Set the stage context and tone for your leadership
    • Articulate a clear vision and measures for success (qualitative and quantitative)
    • Find ways to creatively engage your people (involve head, heart and the body in learning)

    Key principles:

    • Meet your team where they are and lead them somewhere new
    • Step back to get a broader perspective as if you were in fact a conductor: is your extended team or organization making music or noise? Gather insight from different internal and external stakeholder groups to ensure that your perspective is grounded in qualitative data (i.e., stories) as well as qualitative data (key success measures).
    • Being a strong leader in this style does not mean being autocratic (command-and-control) nor does it mean only offering feel-good assessments and feedback. Have the fierce conversations you need to have one on one but from a place of respect, directness, and compassion. Be willing to be vulnerable and transparent.
  2. Collaborative leadership (team = ensemble)

    Context: This style of leadership is most appropriate at the team level. Your goal at this level is to facilitate and coach rather than to direct.  This means that you are empowering others and helping them to develop their thinking and effectiveness. This requires more time and patience and it is more effective then simply providing the answer. Given the complexity we’re surrounded by, leaders need to engage thinking at the team level to meet our most complex challenges. Mastering the art of collaborative conversations is an important set of skills. Adopt one or two processes as a framework for moving a team from high level thinking to tactics, from the global to the granular.

    Goals: Develop and empower your team to think critically and creatively

    Actions: Connecting, synchronizing, and co-creating; facilitating and coaching


    • Ask powerful questions that challenge people see things from different perspectives
    • Use a framework to make sure that your team moves through different conversations for comprehensive planning and collective learning
    • Make sure that your team is as diverse as possible (cognitive, cultural, functional, level, gender, age, seniority, introversion and extroversion, etc.) to ensure that you get a broad range of perspectives and ideas

    Additional notes:

    • Encourage and accept different viewpoints rather than groupthink
    • Make it safe for people to express divergent views
    • Recent research at Goggle about what makes teams most effective points to two indicators:
    • The ability of the team to maximize diversity, and
    • The team’s ability to tolerate candid, direct, and honest conversations while maintaining an environment of trust, openness, and emotional safety (no shaming, blaming, or recriminations) – i.e., psychological safety
  3.   Improvisational leadership (individual = soloist)

    Context: Unlike “orchestrative leadership” which focuses on impacts at the larger group and organizational levels or collaborative leadership which looks at how to be effective at the team level, improvisational leadership concerns itself with how an individual leader reacts in moments of change, stress, conflict, ambiguity, and complexity.  The focus here is on excellent self-care, emotional regulation, resilience, and developing the ability to pause and shift when you get triggered to ensure you regain your center.  These

    skills are ones that are cultivated and practiced in the martial arts, yoga, scientific inquiry, mindfulness and mediation, active listening, improvisational theatre, and music.

    A reminder that the brain likes certainty, predictability and safety. A natural reaction when there is a breakdown of a group’s communication or individual performance is to assign blame or verbally attack someone.  While this is an understandable human reaction, it is not an effective move as a leader.  Regain your emotional center so that your feedback or communication can be neutral, begins with a positive context, and is based on observable facts, so that the person on the other end can “hear” and “digest” your remarks. Remember that you need to find your own ground, before you can create common ground with others especially in fast paced environments that place greater emphasis on speed rather than effectiveness or impact.

    Goal: Remaining effective in the face of change and ambiguity

    Skills (When you notice yourself getting triggered by a person or events)

    • Pausing and shifting
    • Reframing challenges as learning opportunities
    • Shifting from moods of resentment, resignation, and reactivity to ones that engender curiosity, proactivity, and positivity
    • Cultivating compassion for self and others

    Actions: Adapting and changing, delighting and surprising


    • Trusting your intuition (gut)
    • Delaying action until you feel an inner alignment of head, heart, and gut
    • Wait until you are not in a very triggered state before communicating with the apparent cause of your reaction
    • Check out your assumptions; know your biases
    • Consider how you have contributed to the breakdown before simply assigning blame
    • Build up the capacity to think on your feet by riffing often (thinking out loud with others) and by adopting a playful rather than a perfectionistic mindset

    Additional notes: Under stress, your mind may tell you that only two polarized options exist.  This is called Either/or (binary) thinking.  Improvisational leaders can think on their feet to create yes/and solutions through an act of inclusion, courage, and creativity. Be curious about a third alternative and continue the conversation until one pops up. The skills of riffing, noodling, and playing prime the deeper parts of the midbrain associated with non-linear creativity, the heart of emergent thinking.

How will you improvise when the unforeseen comes to visit?

Your Plan versus Reality -- your plan is always a smoother ride than what actually happens

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