How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge

A musical performance is the production of a vast team – those in the spotlight and those backstage. Ultimately however it’s led by one person, the conductor or lead singer who – like your boss, line-manager or director – sets the process in motion and keeps everyone on track. Where then is your opportunity to lead?

The Role of a Leader can be Very Subtle

Performing a piece of music which they have played so many times before is a challenge for every orchestra. Just as every company finds itself going through the motions for another client or product launch. And yet a conductor brings their unique knowledge, understanding and perspective, to that piece. Their role is to create a fresh experience out of a familiar piece of music. They stand facing the orchestra and use their body and facial expressions with care to make the most of every gesture.

Whilst clear communication is the key to so much of an individual or organisation’s success, so much can be undone by a careless word or uncontrolled emotion. Learning when to speak and when not to and not allowing your prejudices to cloud your judgment, is a great strength. Leading others well often starts with paying attention to the small things in our own lives.

The Role of a Leader can also be Very Complex

As a conductor, they can only achieve their creative aims for a piece of music through the musicians they work with. They have a technical understanding of the instruments and what they are capable of, and most importantly grasp very quickly the mood of the orchestra and are able to respond according to what’s needed at that time.

The best leaders have a light touch, setting the tone of the project or direction of the team, and letting it play out. Leaders create an environment where the team thrives for a common aim. A huge amount of trust exists between a conductor and its orchestra and where that conductor leads well – rightly using their authority – that trust is implicit and doesn’t go unrewarded.

Whether you are being led well or badly however, there is still much you can do to lead yourself and others well, even when you’re not in charge.

The Role of the Soloist

In classical music, the composer often writes a solo into the piece he’s composing. It distinguishes one voice above the others. It brings a break, a rest or relief. In Beethoven’s Fifth he introduces an oboe solo in the first movement after the memorable opening bars and what has been driven and forceful falls back to a few short, sorrowful breaths from the oboe. This is fairly brief and quickly lost as the rest of the instruments take up their places again but only forgettable because of its perfect placement. A bad note would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

For that moment, the oboe leads – under the conductor’s direction – but alone. It’s the soloists moment to shine when it has everyone’s attention and the performance of the whole piece is dependant on it. Because leadership isn’t just a job title. Every day that we are expected to perform there is an opportunity to lead.

Three Principles For Leading From Where You Are


Stephen Covey said,

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

One of the greatest skills of a good musician isn’t their ability to play, but their ability to listen – not just to their instrument but to what’s going on around them. A good team player listens well too.

Tuning out the gossip and really listening to people is a skill we can all develop. It’s not about the amount of time we spend doing that but the attention we pay, catching the details that matter. Listening makes us better leaders.


Every world class musician spends hours learning about their instrument and practicing how to play it, developing the muscle memory that it takes to play long and complicated pieces with accuracy and emotion.

Leaders are always learning too. Whilst “habits are about becoming more efficient at doing the same thing over and over. Learning is about growing by doing things we’ve never done before and challenging ourselves” (The Smartest People Are Constant Learners). It’s been said that Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day and his business partner Charles T Munger once said,

In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.

Audiobooks and podcasts make learning accessible from anywhere. And from your colleagues – above, below and around you – ask yourself what worked and what didn’t and why.


For a musician, there may be a significant amount of time where they are not playing, but if they are not listening, if they have not been learning, if they’re not leaning-in to the piece, then they won’t be ready when it’s their turn to perform.

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote her book Lean-In it was a rallying cry for women in the workplace

believe in yourself, give it your all, “lean in” and “don’t leave before you leave” — which is to say, don’t doubt your ability to combine work and family and thus edge yourself out of plum assignments before you even have a baby. Leaning in can promote a virtuous circle … you step forward, you succeed professionally, and then you’re in a better position to ask for what you need and to make changes that could benefit others.”

But it’s a good mantra for all of us – a reminder to be present and take every opportunity.

Listening, learning and leaning-in prepare you for leadership wherever you’re at. So be a team player and start leading.

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