The Leader as Conductor

Mario Sikora
Oct 17, 2019

Leaders set the tone for the organization.

They establish the direction, set goals, support people along the way.

They set an example of what behaviors are to be demonstrated by others—the work ethic, the interpersonal norms, etc.

But they also set the emotional tone for the organization, and this is where many leaders miss an opportunity to be truly inspirational and influence the success of the team.


Think for a moment to the last time you were around someone who was very sad or negative. How did you feel, better or worse? Contrast that with the last time you were around someone who was really positive and cheerful—how did that make you feel?

Chances are you were affected negatively in the first case and positively in the second. The reason for this is the natural phenomenon of emotional resonance.

Emotional resonance is the reaction caused by mechanisms in our limbic system that make us experience the deep emotional states of others. When two people are together, the emotional state felt most strongly transfers from one person to another. This is why we don’t like to be around people who are highly nervous, angry, or depressed—we start to feel what they feel and we don’t like it. However, we like to be around happy and enthusiastic people because it lifts us up and makes us feel better.

While intensity of the emotion is one factor in its transfer from person to person, status and influence are another factor. As a result, we tend to pick up the emotional tone of the boss and unwittingly adopt it. If the boss is nervous, we are nervous; if the boss is enthusiastic, we become enthusiastic.

Smart leaders understand and take advantage of emotional resonance. They know that their emotional tone has a rippling effect and they practice emotional intelligence, which is nothing more than the ability to recognize and manage our own emotional states and respond thoughtfully to the emotional states of others.

Smart leaders know how to read the pulse of the team and then display the emotional tone that will move the organization in the direction it needs to go. They also understand that they can just as easily pull the organization downward if they are not carefully managing their tone.

This does not mean the leader needs to be happy and enthusiastic all the time. Occasional anger has an important place in setting a tone of discipline and accountability. A leader can dispel anxiety and pessimism in a group by acknowledging their own anxiety but pointing to a solution to the problems causing that anxiety. The good leader knows how to take advantage of all their emotional states and apply them to the right degree at the right time.

The best and most inspirational leaders learn to see themselves as a conductor, in all senses of that word.

In physics, a conductor is a material or device that transmits heat, electricity, etc. from one point to another. Every leader is a conductor in this sense. Their emotions go from one place to another whether they do it consciously or not, to good result or ill.

The conductor of a train manages the activity on that train and ensures that everything runs smoothly, another responsibility of leadership.

But it is in the role of the conductor of the orchestra that the best leaders truly see themselves—they take control of the mood and remold it.

The orchestra conductor pushes the orchestra faster or slows it down; raises the volume to alert and recapture the audience, or lower it to draw the listener in. They know that each member of the orchestra is responsible their instrument and their part of the score, but that the conductor is responsible for “playing” the whole group. They read the pulse of the musicians and the audience and shape them through their emotional will. They also know that the end result is their responsibility.

They know that through the force of their emotional tone and direction they can make beautiful music, or they can make a mess.

The question for you, the leader, is “What effect do your emotions have on your team, and what are you going to do about it?”

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