3 Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork From a Band Nerd

During my senior year in high school, the school's music director selected me to be student conductor for the year. Student conductor – what a privilege! I would get to choose a piece of music for the entire band to practice and perform at an upcoming concert. Me! I was buzzing.

3 Lessons on Leadership and Teamwork From a Band Nerd - Leili Khalessi leilikhalessi.com

I had played the flute for eight years at that point, and was a true band nerd: flitting through scales in between classes, striding along with the marching band under glaring lights at football games, submerging myself in improvisational jazz until it poured out of my ears.

What I learned about leadership from being a high school band nerd

The first time I picked up the conductor’s baton, all of my ham-handed waving around in the air did nothing but stir up the cacophony of a musical traffic accident. Not the glissando into conducting I had hoped for.

For years, I had been responsible only for the sound that came out of my instrument – my practice, my performance – until that gift of leadership in my senior year of high school.

For those standing before the “orchestra” (your organization) for the first time, my experiences may resonate:

1. Eyes up!

I remember a saxophonist in the second row whose eyes were so fixated on the sheet music in front of him that he never saw my conductor’s cues. He missed my signals to the ensemble to slow down and soften, and he went clamoring along as speedily as his eyes could read the printed notes on the page.

My challenge to my reedy, speedy peer was to practice and memorize the piece enough that he could keep an eye out for my signals to the whole band.

Leaders conduct the musicality of organizations like dynamics, mood, expression and volume – but teams will miss these critical cues if they’re bogged down with the day-to-day rhythm.

Outside the band room, this sounds like team members to getting a handle on daily tasks so they can pivot as big picture priorities change. When leaders help their teams to streamline communications and make good use of project management tools, everyone is ready to play the crescendo at the same time.

2. Listen deeply across teams.

As a new conductor, I not only needed the band to listen to me – but to be able to hear each other with deep focus.

I played a game with myself as a developing musician: I would pick a bandmate across the room and focus on listening only for that one person during an entire piece. I’d push the sound of the other musicians out of the way, stretching my ear to hear just this one person, even while playing my own instrument.

Through this, I mastered my focus but also learned to make connections with others’ work. I sensed how one person’s efforts wove with mine into a bolt of sound. I passed this practice onto the band by pairing mismatched instrument sections to listen for how their work fit together.

Through my experience in the nonprofit sector, I’ve seen the importance of listening across teams. Programs, development, communications, technology and administration have to all hear through the noise and deeply listen for each other’s work to advance the nonprofit’s mission. Managers must take the lead in breaking down silos to set teams up to move in lockstep.

3. Begin together, finish together.

Have you ever felt the anticipation right before a concert performance begins? The curtain rises. The musicians all sit up tall. The conductor’s baton lifts. Everyone takes a breath, and then music sinks into the air.

There is nothing like that moment. It’s what I miss most about being a band nerd. So then I wonder, how can I as a leader create this feeling of the team casting off into movement together?

Asana’s article on “The role of cadence and ritual at work” suggests setting up work cycles to direct a team’s energies. A conductor’s baton shapes the music’s time signature like a sculpting knife through the air. So can a leader set the motion for goal setting, project kickoffs, results review, and team reflection.

Passing leadership forward

I stumbled through my student conductor debut, but thankfully, I had an entire wind ensemble at my back. When I couldn’t wrap my head around a phrase in the music, fellow musicians confidently marched through it so others could learn.

And there, harmony rises when organizations encourage leaders at all levels. When you model leadership, you inspire someone to serve a cause in their own authentic, creative way.

  1. Set team members up for day-to-day success so they can keep up with big picture direction.
  2. Establish a culture of organization-wide listening.
  3. Create synchronous work cycles to start, stop and reflect together.

What lessons about leadership and teamwork have you learned from music? Please share, I’d love to hear from you!

Deep bow to Mr. Seto for providing me with this and many other leadership experiences. Thank for believing in me. Thank you.


I’m Leili Khalessi, and I love talking about mindful leadership, nonprofit communications and digital strategy. How about you? Connect with me on Twitter @Leili4Good.