The other day I was speaking with my 14-year old grandson about his experiences at a fine-arts program this summer.  This program inspires young people to excel in the arts and my grandson focused on piano performance and conducting.  He is a gifted young musician with a keen ear and has been a disciplined student of the piano for several years. 

This was his first experience in learning to conduct.  I asked him what he learned and his observations were insightful.  He said: “the conductor has to know the score and the players.  He gets acquainted with the players through rehearsal.  Every motion of his baton has to mean something.  The goal is to get the musicians to play like a team, where everyone is doing their part.  That’s how you make beautiful music.”

I pondered what he said and began to think about his statement in light of the challenges we face today.  I believe there has never been a more important time for effective leaders to step forward.  I’m not referring primarily to government leadership.  The very notion of what a leader is, what they value, how they act, what they say and what it means to lead – all of these concepts are under duress.  I submit for your consideration these 5 leadership principles my grandson taught me from his experiences learning to conduct an orchestra. 


Each Of Us Are Leaders

You might be wondering why I’m writing about leadership.  You might not think of yourself as a leader.  However, I believe each of us, in our own unique capacity, is a leader.  Some of us are leaders in our homes.  Some of us are leaders in faith-based organizations.  Some of us lead in groups or associations or charitable causes.  Some of us lead in business.

I believe the question we must all grapple with is not “am I a leader?”  Instead, the question is “what kind of leader am I?”  Having been a part of many organizations over the years and having seen several different kinds of leaders, both effective and ineffective, I’ve come to recognize certain traits.  My grandson summarized this very well, and quite intuitively I might add, by his statements. 

After reflecting on his comments, I’ve identified 5 core leadership principles which I express below in terms of a conductor leading an orchestra.

  1. The conductor must know the score
  2. The conductor must know the players
  3. The conductor must recognize that every motion of the baton means something
  4. The conductor must unite the players to achieve something great
  5. The conductor must lead by example

Let’s look at each of these.

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"It is my great privilege to serve my clients at Whitnell. I’m also delighted to mentor young people at this company. Mentoring is one of the ways I help ensure our next generation of leaders have the skills and expertise, as well as the values, that have made this company strong for many years."

The Conductor Must Know The Score

The score, in musical terms, is the piece of music that an orchestra will play.  A score is usually a paper document that includes the composition, the melody and harmony, of the music.  It also includes parts for each section of the orchestra to play.  To lead a performance that moves an audience and makes the players proud, the conductor has to know the score very well.

Usually this means the conductor will have studied the score intensely long before the first rehearsal.  They will probably also listen to prior recordings of the score and identify what they like and what they would change.  There is room for improvisation and interpretation in nearly every type of score. 

No matter what type of leadership situation in which you find yourself, you need to know the equivalent of the score very well.  To my way of thinking, a score is simply a vision, a roadmap if you will, for where you are trying to go in life and how you’ll get there. 

Great leaders get clarity about what they are trying to accomplish and do not veer from that vision.  They define the values and guiding principles that shape the cultural norms for what is, and is not, acceptable in terms of behavior.  They set the pace and the tone for how to journey toward a destination.

Parents do this for children.  CEOs do this for employees.  Boards of Directors do this for organizations.  In defining not only the destination but also the core values of a group, these leaders create the score for the players on their team. 

One of the ways we help our clients develop a unique score for their financial future is by asking deep and meaningful questions.  This helps us chart a course for our clients based on those factors that we can control.  None of us know what the future will bring and we cannot predict with certainty how things will unfold.

But we can get clarity about what we want to have happen in the future, especially with our families and the organizations and people we care about most.  Getting clarity on these matters is like composing a score for your future.  We can also discover those resources that are within our ability to control and build a strategy to maximize their use.  We can build a roadmap.


The Conductor Must Know The Players

A conductor rarely performs by playing a musical instrument.  Instead, they inspire musicians in the orchestra to give their best performance.  A conductor achieves this goal by getting to know the players very well.  This usually happens during rehearsals, when the conductor comes to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the players.

By the same token, effective leaders need to know the players on their team really well.  I like to tell a story about Jack Welch, the former leader of General Electric.  GE became one of America’s great companies by producing products that revolutionized the average American home. 

When Mr. Welch first came to GE, he wanted to learn more about the company.  He was advised to go out onto the shop floor and speak with the people who were actually building the products.  Welch spent time getting to know the players, looking at the world through their eyes, and that experience really paid off for him.  By getting to know the players and how they understood their contribution to GE, Mr. Welch helped lead those players to new heights of success.  They followed him because they trusted him. 

We practice a similar philosophy at Whitnell.  Each of us works on a team to produce the best possible results for our clients.  Each team member has areas of strength where they can make the greatest impact on our clients’ goals.  As team leaders, it’s our role to bring the right players to each client situation and inspire them to give their best performance. 


The Conductor Must Recognize That Every Motion Of The Baton Means Something

My grandson was surprised to learn this point.  A conductor’s hand motions, facial expressions and body posture all say something to the players.  If the conductor is consistent in using the same motions the same way, the players know what to expect and anticipate how to perform.

In the same way, effective leaders have learned to communicate using both verbal and non-verbal communications.  Consistency in speech and action produces clarity for followers.  It provides a feeling of comfort and of knowing how the leader will respond to nearly any situation. 

I believe Winston Churchill was a great leader.  His consistency in speech and action gave the people of Great Britain and of the free world real hope at a time when hope was hard to come by.  Statements such as the following leave little opportunity for missing the point.

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.  We shall fight on the landing grounds.  We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.  We shall fight in the hills.  We shall never surrender.”  This is a powerful and incontrovertible statement. 

But it wasn’t just Churchill’s words that projected his meaning.  It was also his visage, his manner of comporting himself.  Churchill was known as the British bulldog because of the way he carried himself and the way he looked.  If you ever compare a photo of Churchill and a bulldog, the resemblance can be striking. 

Leaders gain trust and the confidence of their followers when the leaders are consistent over time in their words and in their actions.  When words and actions match, there is harmony.  When they do not match, there is dissonance.  At Whitnell, we strive for consistency. 

Our investment committee watches the performance of the markets with a keen eye.  We honestly and realistically report our observations to our clients on a regular basis through the Ideas section of our website.  But we do not provide market forecasts.  We don’t tell people about the latest hot stock to buy or sell. 

We strive to be consistent in our core message, summarized very well in an article by David Peckenpaugh: “There are always bad things which have a chance of happening that could shake investor confidence and might result in a sell-off in the market. But there are also many good things which might occur that usually get less attention. So instead of focusing on those things we can’t control or predict, we concentrate our efforts on helping our clients construct a portfolio designed to meet their long-term objectives while avoiding unnecessary risks.”


The Conductor Must Unite The Players To Achieve Something Great

A great conductor creates a unifying sense of team spirit among the players.  An orchestra that plays like a team will outshine an orchestra that might have superior players but who are not unified.  In business terms, a spirit of unity is often best realized by being intentional in shaping corporate culture. 

Very few organizations have done a better job of this than Southwest Airlines.  Their stated vision is to “become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.”  The leadership of Southwest is very intentional in how it communicates to 55,000 employees their “Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart and Fun-LUVing Attitude.” 

Southwest likes to proudly state that they have never laid off employees and that their corporate culture creates a feeling of belonging and trust with their team.  This is why the team members go the extra mile to support their customers.  Their in-flight magazine tells monthly stories of team members who have done something extraordinary for passengers. 

At Whitnell we seek to unite our team members to deliver a level of service that makes a meaningful impact on our clients.  We are proud of the work we do and take our responsibilities to our clients very seriously. 

There is something you may not know about how we serve our clients.  We actively foster a team approach to client relationships.  While there are clearly relationship leaders who have primary contact with a client, there are also many great people working with the relationship leader to serve clients.  This is why, when you look at people in the Team section of our website, you’ll nearly always see the statement: “discover the team behind…” 


The Conductor Must Lead By Example

Of all the things a conductor must know, it is this last point that is the most important.  Their example communicates a message to the players.  If a conductor knows the score, has taken the time to get to know the players, if the conductor recognizes that every motion of their baton means something and that the best orchestras play like a team, then the conductor will have set an example for the players to follow. 

Most importantly, the players will want to deliver their best performance because they won’t want to let down the leader.  Their admiration and respect for the conductor will inspire them to give their best efforts. 

In today’s world where CEO pay is sometimes 1,000% higher than the administrative assistants sitting down the hall from them, the notion of servant leadership has come under assault.  Corporate scandals and Ponzi schemes have eroded trust that leaders in business will do the right things.  I get this.

Yet I believe that there are still many great leaders in business today who do lead by example.  There is also great hunger for and interest in leadership as evidenced by the dozens of books and thousands of articles written every year on the topic.  Leadership is not dead.  But examples of poor leadership and selfish behavior usually get the big headlines. 

Here is a headline you may not have seen.  Inc. Magazine reported in 2015 that the US now has 27 million entrepreneurs.  These brave people strike out on their own to do something they believe in.  This gives me great hope for the future of the US.  Who knows?  Maybe the next great leader is learning lessons in the trenches right now and just waiting for their chance to break through. 


Final Thoughts

If you’ve lost hope in leaders today, I can certainly understand that sentiment.  Yet I believe that it is never wise to bet against the American spirit of ingenuity.  We Americans are an innovative and irrepressible people.  Put another way, our leadership issues today are just another problem to solve.  We are very good at solving problems.   


The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. No illustration or content in it should be construed as a substitute for informed professional tax, legal, and or/financial advice.