Analysis: politicians and conductors need to be strong communicators, secure in their own style, be able to unite a team and be great leaders

By Kathleen CronieUniversity of Aberdeen

It's been a tough few weeks for Boris Johnson, first losing the Tory majority in the House of Commons and then being defeated in his first set of votes as prime minister. Johnson is suffering from a tremendous revolt in his followers and his style of leadership doesn’t seem to be making things any better.

So who could he turn to for advice (bar Dominic Cummings)? Perhaps he might learn a thing or two from observing the leaders of the musical world – conductors. Conductors lead musicians through rehearsals and performances, sometimes without uttering a single word. What skills do these musicians have that Johnson could learn to use? 

Uniting their team

As Phillip Lee crossed the floor of the House of Commons, wiping out the government’s working majority, Johnson must have been aware of the number one rule of conducting – if the orchestra aren’t with you, they’re against you.

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From RTÉ Lyric FM's Lyric Feature, violinist, concertmaster and conductor John Georgiadis on his autobiography, Bow to Baton - A Leader's Life

A conductor is a silent musician, their instrument is made up of people with likes, dislikes and minds of their own. A conductor can wave their arms as much as they like, but if the players decide not to follow their directions  – or worse, not to play at all – then they can't do anything about it. It’s therefore an important part of the conductor’s job to convince their players to follow their lead. Similarly, if politicians lose the respect and trust of their followers then their leadership becomes ineffective and no amount of further instructions can change that. 

Developing an individual style

When we think about successful leaders our thoughts might turn to Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, or perhaps even Oprah Winfrey. All of these individuals had their own particular style of leadership and this makes them particularly memorable. Much as it might be tempting for aspiring leaders to try to imitate these people, it’s unlikely someone else would enjoy much success by copying any of the quirks that these leaders displayed – it’s tough to imagine Johnson pulling off the "No Drama Obama" style.

Emerging conductors face a similar dilemma. There are plenty of conductors who show wonderful control of orchestras, but a gesture or facial expression that looks powerful on one person, can look aggressive on another. Part of becoming a leader is, through experience, developing your own personal style of leadership. Of course, seeming quirky for the sake of being memorable isn't a path to great leadership. Johnson is not short of idiosyncrasies and he is certainly memorable. But the more control he loses, the less charming these quirks seem. If a leader loses control, no amount of schtick is going to save their reputation. 

Engaging their audience 

Leaders direct their team in order to achieve a goal. It’s worth remembering though, that the team is not the only group that will affect the leader’s eventual success or failure. Musicians are often influenced by their audience when they clap along with the music. When groups begin to clap in time with each other, research has shown that the speed at which they clap tends to increase. If players speed up along with the clapping, playing the piece accurately eventually becomes unmanageable.

Conductors must therefore resist the urge to speed up when audiences begin to clap along. The problem of course is that if they ignore the audience and battle on at their own speed, after a while the audience will stop clapping and engage less with the music.

Politicians fight a similar battle when the voting public begin voicing their opinions on their party’s actions. It would be tempting to try and keep everyone happy whilst also sticking to their original plan, but in reality this would be an impossible task. The difficulty politicians therefore face is attempting to pursue their goals whilst continuing to please the public. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane Show, David Brophy on life as a conductor

Expressive communication

Both politicians and conductors are communicators. Conductors use their bodies, arms and faces to give instructions, and offer encouragement. Politicians give speeches to communicate the work they are doing - without this they would be unable to secure votes and would lose their position - and public speaking requires clarity and expressivity.

Conductors use their method of communication – body language – to control the music being performed. An open body posture invites a loud, warm sound and a closed body posture might invite a small, timid sound. Research has shown that people view leaders who speak using defensive hand gestures to be distant and the leader with positive hand gestures to be more attractive. Politicians might therefore benefit from reflecting not only on the content of their speeches, but also on the way in which they deliver them. 

READ: 'Boris Johnson may be a joke, but he will have the last laugh'

Despite the difference in the arenas in which they perform, conductors and politicians share many skills. They must both be strong communicators, able to unite a team, be secure in their own individual style and, above all, be great leaders. Johnson is an experienced comic performer, but perhaps he might now benefit from watching the great maestros in action and beginning to lead like a great conductor. Perhaps it's time to stop playing the clown and start playing the Pied Piper.

Kathleen Cronie is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen who is researching using leadership theory to explore the role of choral conductors. She is the musical director of Loud & Proud, Scotland's LGBT+ choir, and teaches voice at the North East of Scotland Music School

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ