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The Leader Conductor

Inclusive leadership involves conducting the whole orchestra in a culture of evenhood.

When I was a child I was frequently dragged along to watch my older brother perform in various musical concerts.

On one particular occasion he was playing the flute in an orchestra. Towards the end of the first half, the conductor turned to the audience and asked for a volunteer to conduct the orchestra.

This grabbed my attention and produced a story that, over the years, I have told many times to explain what I think good leadership looks like. The entire audience knew where this was going. Surely it was an attempt by the conductor to show how good he was at holding the orchestra together and getting them to play to perfection. Without him, it would be a disaster.

One brave yet perhaps foolish volunteer made themselves known and took to the podium. He started up – flailing around helplessly, a sea of arms and an incoherent baton. In turn, the orchestra played . . . much to our surprise . . . to perfection, and the audience moved from anticipated horror, to getting the point entirely.

This was not an exercise in showing how good the conductor was; this was an exercise in showing how good the orchestra was.

Many years later (fast-forward over 30 years) I found myself in the privileged position of spending some time on a leadership course at Oxford Saïd Business School. On one module of the programme we were invited to conduct a choir under the tutelage of a well-known conductor. Here the choir was instructed differently; to follow the leader. So, if I flailed around helplessly, so would they; and if I kept in time, so would they.

There are some important lessons coming from these conducting experiences that I have drawn from over my years in leadership. High amongst them are:

Humble leadership: the leader, like the conductor, is not the best person in the team. They are the person who can get the best out of the team.

Empowerment: a good leader empowers the team to perform in their absence and makes themselves redundant – knowing that the team will perform, make decisions and deliver outputs whether they, the leader, are there or not.

Diversity: an orchestra or a choir are made up of many different parts. A good leader, like a good conductor, needs to bring together diversity. Look at the leaders who recruit in their own image – “50 violins does not an orchestra make” (as someone infamous once made-up!). A good leader, like a good conductor, can create harmony from diversity and avoids bias for or against any one part of the team.

If there’s an instrument you don’t like as a conductor you’ll be missing out on creating harmonious perfection by applying your bias and excluding that instrument.

In the same way, corporate leaders will restrict the talents of their workforce if they limit their workforce’s talent by recruiting and promoting on a ‘face fits’, ‘in my likeness’, ‘matching personality’ basis.

“The neurodiverse suffer from recruitment and promotion bias and yet have some unique or enhanced talents, skills and abilities to offer. So perhaps it’s time to tackle neurodiversity in the workplace.”

Where some see only negative effects in mood disorders, neurological conditions or personality differences; others may see the sometimes unique or enhanced talents of creativity, logical thinking, rational decision making, risk identification, process development, emotional intelligence and so on.

A culture of evenhood: all of this is brought together where the leader creates a culture of evenhood. This is a culture in which people are encouraged to be themselves and play to their strengths. In creating this culture, people feel valued for who they are - they have a positive sense of wellbeing, strengthened resilience and a sense of inclusion.

To learn more about how to create a culture of evenhood in your organisation take a look at the evenhood website.


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