Business Leadership Lessons from a Symphony Orchestra


Keiko Tomasini-Hagino, Strategic Advisor

Lisa Insley, Partner

Perfectly aligned harmonies and dynamic sound is what one experiences when the symphony orchestra fills the concert hall with the beauty of music. Yet, the beauty is not created only through the work of highly trained professionals simply playing the written score. Nor is it about the brilliant conductor guiding them. It goes beyond them. 

Virtuosity is evidenced the moment when musicians fully harmonize their capabilities to achieve their excellence with passion and energy. Bravo! Endless applause from the audience, but also the conductor, both of whom are full of appreciation and respect for what the musicians have achieved. Is that feeling only possible in music? 

Virtuosity can also exist in the business context and may be represented by organizational excellence or the harmonious outcome for which every organization strives. Perhaps the symphony orchestra could provide an insightful analogy and inspiration for leaders in organizations to achieve their own “virtuosity” in their environment. Let’s consider what contributes to a ‘harmonious outcome’ in the context of a business leadership.

Change is Constant 

Let us first acknowledge that symphony orchestras, like any organization, must adapt to change and that change is constant. The music industry is one of the most globally competitive sectors in a volatile economy. In fact, professional orchestras are constantly facing changes that happen during the normal course of doing business. Considerations such as, unique program design, incorporating instrumental soloists or choral works, or having a guest conductor. In addition, they must be highly adaptable when they are on tour since every concert hall has its own acoustics. How do they survive and thrive in the ever fast, changing, workplace? 

Mariss Jansons, one of the most renowned conductors who led top orchestras, once mentioned in an interview, “Every time we have new tasks and new goals, our quality is increasing.” Studying his rehearsal with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (German: Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks) gives an insightful perspective to understand this statement. 

How are business leaders setting themselves up to better lead their organization through change in a way that is beneficial for all? At Senscient, we have observed, and are continually working with clients who invest in setting up a Change Management Office to offer a framework, tools and resources to help initiatives anywhere in the organization create meaningful and lasting change. 

Sonic Image as a Vision 

As a conductor, Maestro Jansons says he needs an idea (or vision) of the sound and the interpretation when he reads the music, and it has to be as specific as possible. Why specific? The sonic image is a vision that orchestra musicians must have as a common purpose in the end. Jansons is, however, constantly aware that such a vision is not perfectly shaped from the onset. From the first moment in rehearsal, the conductor and the musicians must align the vision and internalize it so that they can eventually externalize the sound they wish. 

One of the orchestra musicians describes the way Jansons achieves alignment with them. “He explains a great deal about [the] many different emotional states that we should [express] by sharing 100 experiences with us so that we can eventually understand what he wants to achieve. He knows that 3, 4 examples are not enough to get it because no one can have the same experiences. To know what [the music] is about, we need to have a common denominator.” 

The sonic image is his wish and the ideal end product. However, he is aware that collectively, the orchestra will achieve much more together by reflecting on his examples, as well as contributing to the vision themselves. He sees “Both [his] wish and reality evolve in rehearsal.” 

When the leader of an organization not only communicates, in depth, the meaning of the vision statement, but gives practical examples, behaviors, and competencies that must manifest to achieve the vision, it gives the team much more clarity. Setting up teams for success in achieving the vision also requires hearing how the vision resonates with them – or how it does not – and being responsive in either giving more practical examples or adjusting the vision. A feedback loop is critical to achieve a harmonious outcome; similar to how a conductor welcomes the contribution of the orchestra to the vision and interpretation of the musical piece. 

Knowledge Work and Alignment 

Just like in professional organizations, highly qualified individuals with different expertise, perspective, and background are working together in the symphony orchestra to achieve the same goal. Therefore, rehearsals are not about telling them what to do or enhancing their technical abilities. Rehearsals are, to a certain degree, continuous knowledge work for the pursuit of excellence. It is about aligning their knowledge and fine-tuning the sound to create a higher level of knowledge for collaboration, as well as achieving virtuosity and a harmonious outcome in the final product. 

Of course, business leaders must communicate a vision which articulates a future state to be achieved, establishing a common purpose and shared goal. However, the most critical point in this setting is “how to align the vision” as knowledge works to foster teamwork that delivers. Since “rehearsals” are not present in business scenarios, it might sound idealistic. However, the “orchestral rehearsal” represents an internal process of alignment that must be applied in every aspect of the business process. When solving problems, for example, if there is no alignment on the problem to be solved, there cannot be a harmonious outcome. As the musician says ‘By sharing 100 experiences (perspectives) to have a common denominator’, this serves as an analogy for continuous knowledge work of alignment. This is hard work indeed. However, it is a key factor in achieving a harmonious outcome. 

Mutual Respect and Autonomy 

Mariss Jansons was a string player himself. But, as a conductor, he relies on the performance of individuals who are highly trained musical technicians. Now, how does he activate and modify such an intangible asset through such a diverse array of talent? Musicians point out Jansons´ extraordinary ability to present and communicate his vision in a way that brings out their best performance: “He [Jansons] knows exactly what he wants. He is very critical of himself and very tolerant with us. That results in a great collaboration with mutual respect.” One of the orchestra musicians describes Jansons’´ inner discipline – and the smile of appreciation on their face when Jensons says “Please understand (bear in mind) to inspire me. It is my task to inspire you and I hope I do so, but when you inspire me, I could also go over my limit”. At some point, the Chief Conductor is willing to share his power and authority with musicians. As a matter of fact, by doing so, he is giving qualified individuals autonomy and encouragement so that they also try to go beyond what they believe is possible. 

Autonomy in this sense is not just giving people freedom to get the jobs done as they want. It is more about inspiring people to take initiative for their growth. In a business context, autonomy is also critical because it improves peoples’ commitment to take ownership in their tasks to achieve the common goal. Fostering this requires a great deal of responsibility and self-discipline from leaders, but is also necessary in building a culture of respect and trust. 

Inspiration as a Motor for Growth 

Musicians describe working with Jansons as never boring. Every rehearsal with him is an enriching experience. It is because of this, that the musicians continue to feel his passion and drive, and feel like they are part of his search for new inspirations. Jansons´ growth-oriented approach is the motor of the orchestra; encouraging musicians to embrace change and constantly seek new challenges and opportunities to thrive. 

Recalling, again, Jansons’ statement from above, that “Every time we have new tasks and new goals, our quality is increasing.” In a business setting, it might sound idealistic. Let us offer a different perspective. As an organization’s leader, showing you value a growth mindset and supporting investment in people’s development can have a profound impact on your culture and workplace happiness. By shifting from a task-driven approach to a people-oriented approach, you can strengthen your greatest asset — the people in your organization. There are practical — and tangible — ways we can see and help leaders to foster a growth mindset within their organizations. This can be done through holistic and intentional culture shaping. 

“It’s a Gamble.” 

When the vision is aligned, and the sound is perfectly tuned, Jansons admits, “There is no such thing as perfect”. Before the concert, they are not sure how the performance will go. In addition, there are many factors that can influence their performance. So, in essence “It’s an experiment, a gamble (risk).” Yet, rather than have that uncertainty become a distraction, Jansons takes it as an opportunity to improvise trying out something new. Musicians know that he does not like it when a concert simply replicates the rehearsal. He wants more! “It’s like a cosmic rocket,” Jansons goes on to describe that “The first phase is the preparation, the second, the rehearsals in the concert hall (simulation), but one more phase to reach the cosmos is to give the best. The very best of myself and the orchestra can deliver.” 

In business, a leader and their team do not have complete control over an outcome. Achieving an excellent outcome is a long-term process. With that in mind, leaders can establish values that help an organization understand the importance of and how to adapt in the face of uncertainty. Here is where values, practical examples, and holistically integrating new behaviors can lead to the best outcomes amidst known and unknown factors. This space is where an organization can establish how they excel in the face of adversity and turn failures into growth for their business. When leaders help reinforce values, it also plays a role in promoting calculated risk-taking and experimentation as a part of embracing change to improve. 

Virtuosity is Not Made Overnight 

As with all great performances, in music and in business, it takes investment of time and resources to achieve the vision and elicit a standing ovation. Too often, leaders and individuals want the quick solution, but at the expense of quality – be it in sound to the concert goer or the consumer of a service or product. In order to achieve great, we must make the ordinary extraordinary, and help the entire organization thrive. If you do what’s minimally expected, you can expect minimal results. 

At Senscient, we have pragmatic frameworks which help business leaders not only define their mission, vision, and values but connect them to business strategy, culture alignment, and 360 degree reinforcement within the work environment (both physical and intangible). 

If you’re reading this article and have a sticky business challenge you believe would benefit from integrating the approaches described, we welcome a conversation where we can give you ideas on how to break through. 

Schedule a free conversation here