Leading from Any Chair

I recently attended a concert performed by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the Fields with the very talented violinist Joshua Bell. As the orchestra was warming up, I noticed that there was no podium for the conductor and when Joshua came out, he sat in the chair where the first violinist usually sits in the orchestra. From time to time, he would use his bow to conduct but mostly he was playing as a member of the orchestra. He did stand up to play a memorable solo but for most of the time he was seated as a member of the orchestra. It was obvious that the musicians knew what they were supposed to do and did it with amazing perfection. Joshua Bell got them started but it was obvious that each member of the orchestra knew his or her part and the result was beautiful music!

This performance reminded me of another conductor I’d heard speak several years ago at a conference—Benjamin Zander. He and his wife, Rosamund Stone Zander wrote a book titled, “The Art of Possibility—Transforming Professional and Personal Life.” One chapter is titled, Leading from Any Chair, and in it, Benjamin Zander says, “I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD in various dramatic poses, but his true power derives from his ability to make others powerful.”

This got me to thinking about what would happen in our businesses if leaders realized that they are not the ones who, in and of themselves, make everything happen. So many leaders I encounter in my consulting practice feel as if they have to be all knowing and all powerful to their people. They miss the benefits that come from sitting down or stepping back and letting one of their employees take the lead.

Of course, to do this takes courage and strength—it is certainly not a sign of weakness to let someone on the team take the lead on a project but it seems to me that many leaders don’t give their employees the chance to take the lead from time to time. How do we expect our people to learn and grow if we’re always telling them what to do and how to do it? What results could we expect to see if we adopted a “lead from any chair” philosophy?

In order to have a “conductorless ensemble,” you’ll need to have talented and empowered employees. You’ll need to trust that when you sit down or step back that they’ll know what’s expected of them to succeed. Benjamin Zander thinks the idea of leading from any chair is a way to practice the art of possibility and I saw this in action on the stage with Joshua Bell and the orchestra.

I challenge you to give this a try in your organization and let us know how it works for you!


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