What Music Teaches Us About Leadership and Trust

Posted by Sydney Myers

January 26th, 2018

As with all art forms, music is about more than notes and sound. There is a level beyond the physical that we can draw from to tell stories, share emotions, and even learn lessons. Consider two TED talks that show what music teaches us about leadership and trust.

What Music Teaches Us About Leadership

Every orchestra has a conductor. If you’ve watched enough performances, you probably have noticed that each conductor has his own style. Why? What does each one mean to accomplish by the way he leads the musicians?

In his talk entitled “Lead Like the Great Conductors“, Italy Talgam examines the directing styles of six different conductors.


The first conductor we look at is Carlos Kleiber. Rather than using his gestures to set the tempo and count each beat, he seems to just be enjoying the music. Italy says, “This happiness does not come from only his own story and his joy of the music. The joy is about enabling other people’s stories to be heard at the same time.”

Kleiber does exert a measure of control when a musician makes a mistake, but he doesn’t use the authority to dictate the entire piece.

This is contrasted with another conductor, Riccardo Muti, who conducts the orchestra with a stern look and very clear gestures. This much control made playing the music less enjoyable. Why?

The musicians said, “Because you don’t let us develop. You’re using us as instruments, not as partners.” So, while it got the job done, too much control hurt the performers.

Italy shows another conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Karajan is even more loose with his gestures than Kleiber. This can make it difficult for the musicians to know when he wants them to play. So what do they do?

Italy explains, half-jokingly, “They look at Karajan. And then they look at each other… ‘Do you understand what this guy wants?’ And after doing that, they really look at each other, and the first players of the orchestra lead the whole ensemble in playing together.

“And when Karajan is asked about it, he actually says, ‘Yes, the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them clear instruction. Because that would prevent the ensemble [from] listening to each other.'”

Karajan leads by empowering the other leaders.

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What Music Teaches Us About Trust

Expanding on the relationship between a conductor and the orchestra, Charles Hazlewood discusses the element of trust in music. His talk entitled “Trusting the Ensemble” highlights the importance of a conductor trusting the musicians, and music’s ability to build trust between people and communities.


Charles starts by explaining that as a conductor, his job depends on trust. “There has to be, between me and the orchestra, an unshakable bond of trust, born out of mutual respect, through which we can spin a musical narrative that we all believe in,” he says.

Similar to the great conductors highlighted in Italy Talgam’s talk, Charles realized that a lack of trust in himself and his orchestra would cause him to overcompensate, overgesticulate, and try too hard to control things he couldn’t.

Trust is imperative in music and, really, in any great venture.

But music does more than simply illustrate the importance of trust. It can actually build trust between people.

Charles talks about going to South Africa to form a new opera company. Most of the performers were black, but some of them were white. And there was one white performer who had previously been a member of the South African police force.

“Let’s be under no illusions,” explains Charles, “in South Africa, the relationship most devoid of trust is that between a white policeman and the black community.

“So how do we recover from that, ladies and gentlemen? Simply through singing. We sang, we sang, we sang, and amazingly, new trust grew, and indeed friendship blossomed.”

Born out of working toward a common goal came trust.

Leadership and trust are two vital components for educators, entrepreneurs, and teammates. They are also two of the most complex characteristics to develop.

Music teaches us that leadership can take on many forms, and which methods are most successful. Music also shows us how to trust our partners.

Maybe the world would be a different place if we all chose to learn from music.


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