I teach a class at the Federal Executive Institute (FEI) to government managers on transforming hierarchical relationships into powerful partnerships. In the middle of the week, participants go on field trips to observe leading and following in significantly different settings than their usual work environment.high-school-orchestra

This week a number of participants in my class chose the field trip that took them to the local high school. They shared with the rest of the class their experience observing young people learning and practicing leading and following in the orchestra in which they played.

Contrary to the cultural belief that everyone is supposed to be a leader, these students understood their role in this situation as followers of the conductor. They reported that several things made this a satisfying role. The leader respected them. She listened to their input. They felt heard and respected, whether or not she accepted their suggestions.

Equally important, they were motivated by the mission – to make good music. They diligently practiced at home because they did not want to let their fellow team members down through inferior performance. In the high school setting, two musicians shared a music stand and they needed to coordinate who would turn the page when the other was playing. They practiced doing this smoothly.

Perhaps the most interesting lesson came when the government manager was invited to conduct the orchestra. The musicians recognized that their new “leader” lacked the skills of their trained conductor and compensated for this by quietly following the student in the “lead chair” who did know the music, its pacing, its variations of intensity and other elements that create a good musical performance.

This was a great example of people owning the lead and follow roles, being flexible in them and using each team member’s gifts to accomplish the highest level of performance of which the group was capable. Good lessons for managers everywhere!

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