Leadership From Musicianship

As I grow in my design career, I start to value more and more the ability to keep my team organized and firing on all cylinders. I grew up as an artist and musician and when people ask me what I do today, I often parallel my role in design to being a conductor or maestro of an orchestra. If you’ve ever played in a school band, or been to a symphony or opera, you know there is usually someone positioned at the front of the band waving a magical wand in time with the music. This person isn’t there for optics (although it does make for a good one); s/he is guiding and cueing the musicians through a piece of music.

For me, it was Ms. Lamb in the 7th grade. She’d sit on a high stool front of the room behind a podium and guide a class of more than 30 students on 15-20 different instruments as if she were having a conversation with each of us simultaneously. I stood at the back of the room and played the snare drum, so I had a great overview of the landscape of musicians and how they were organized with purpose; horns, woodwinds, reeds, strings, percussion, etc. I remember being in awe of her ability to move around the room, jumping from instrument to instrument to demonstrate the parts with what seemed like perfect fluency. To me, this was like a superpower and has always stuck with me as an amazing talent.

In hindsight, she may not have been an expert on every instrument, but she knew enough to communicate the desired outcome and build trust with the band. As young musicians intimidated by the multi-page sheet music, we knew we could trust her to guide us through the music and be there to pick us up or cover for us if we messed up or missed our part.

It’s the conductor’s job to support the musicians by helping to keep them in sync; signaling specific players when to drop out, to come in, at what volume, and to keep the train moving in rhythm. To do this requires studied knowledge of the piece of music at hand, or there is large potential for a train wreck. The same is true for product design.

While you may not necessarily have a final piece of written music to study and perform from, you often have some sort of road map or strategy you’re working from. This is like the sheet music in that it provides the framework that allows the orchestrator to see all players in the field from a 30,000 foot view, and to work backwards from the goals breaking it down into objectives and tasks; the same way a piece of music is analyzed and talked through with each section and players.

Music and design have many parallels, and I regularly draw similarities between the two when strategizing, planning, or thinking of ways to help my team navigate challenges. And just like music, learning is never ending in design and leadership. It is both an art and a beautiful science.