Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, 2006 (Source Wikimedia)
Ideas for Leaders #074

Ensemble Leadership: Lessons from the Orchestra Pit

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Key Concept

An examination of musical ensembles offers insight into how ‘distributed’, or ‘plural leadership’ can work. This type of leadership, as opposed to individual or hierarchical styles can be more effective in moving organizations collectively towards shared goals.

Victoria Concordia Crescit — Victory through harmony.

Idea Summary

What is ‘shared leadership’? How is it fostered and developed, and what insight can be taken from musicians about this phenomena? This Idea looks at the performance practices of musicians and the leadership challenges that arise in this field to explain why a single responsible leader within a hierarchical system can lead to problems within the organization.

Which of these two main streams of thought on leadership do you relate to?

  1. Leadership is the act of leading — the fluid passing from one person to another, mainly in an individual agency context.
  2. Shared mental models achieve more distributed forms of leadership — a shift in emphasis from a leader-centric ideology to a more dialogue-based approach.

The second stream is the focus of this Idea. ‘Shared’ or ‘plural’ leadership within groups relies on reflexive attitudes where individuals continually reassess relational dynamics in order to act in ways that improve the group’s ongoing welfare. This type of leadership emerges from group activities and musicians in an orchestra embody that habit of leadership as an emergent process.

Interviewing ensemble musicians has provided insights into the predispositions, preparatory work and capacities that can result in the type of leadership that can be described as ‘joint plural action.’ Let’s look at how such leadership is created in practice:

  • Addressing the instrument: successful performance is not possible without many hours spent alone grappling with the technical difficulties that the musician confronts when mastering his/her instrument.
  • Expressing readiness among the players to begin: musicians go through their warm-up routines and become ready by acknowledging their colleagues. In this way, each player becomes acutely aware of the physical presence of the people in close proximity and ensures that there is a line-of-sight to the conductor, section principal and concert master.
  • Establishing the tempo and style: each member of the group has an idea in their mind of the tempo and style of the work they are about to perform. But because of music’s temporal nature, negotiations can be carried out and decisions made in an instant. These occur by, for example, making eye contact, raising an eyebrow, nodding the head, and by listening intently to the overall effect as it unfolds.
  • Dealing with unexpected problems as they arise: for example, if a player or section begins to rush a passage, only the group in its entirety can bring the tempo back into alignment.
  • Creating and taking space: players must attend to the sound that others in close proximity are creating and blend into that sound without either dominating or withholding.

The vision of leadership proposed here is one where each of us has the possibility and responsibility of offering our own mastery in the pursuit of achieving goals worthy of such attention and energy. This type of leadership is inherently ethical in its relational orientation, as well as participative and transformative in its realization.

Business Application

The insight into the world of musical performance can be applied to organizational contexts too:

  • Just as musicians must spend time mastering their instruments and developing the respect and regard for the craft, organizational members should also work on honing their own sense of mastery of the particular talent they bring to collective action. Thus, the capacity for leadership is developed before leadership takes place. This applies to everyone involved in a particular collective activity.
  • The goal of the collective action should be made uppermost, so that individuals are more able to put others first in pursuit of the greater whole.
  • Senior leaders should be aware that reward systems that attend to individual achievement can mitigate against ensemble consciousness, as can cultures which promote individualistic, heroic styles of leading.
  • Over-domination by a single member or even a power bloc within a group can have the effect of shutting down other potentially important voices.
  • For plural leadership to be truly effective, an environment of mutual respect is foundational.
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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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