• John Lyon

Embracing Your Mistakes To Become A More Effective Leader

A candid reflection on just a few of the things I got wrong.


𝘑𝘰𝘩𝘯 𝘤𝘶𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘧𝘶𝘭𝘭-𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘦 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘤 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘚𝘩𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘪𝘦𝘭𝘥 𝘔𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘤 𝘏𝘶𝘣, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘥𝘪𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘰𝘳 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘓𝘦𝘦𝘥𝘴 𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘩 𝘖𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘢, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘢𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘶𝘤𝘵𝘰𝘳 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘓𝘦𝘦𝘥𝘴 𝘚𝘺𝘮𝘱𝘩𝘰𝘯𝘺 𝘖𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘢, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘢𝘯 𝘰𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘰𝘳/𝘢𝘳𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘧𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦.


In numerous ways, the idea that ‘you get out what you put in’ definitely rang true of my experiences at the University of Leeds and various union societies, primarily LUUMS. I started at Leeds in September 2014, finishing my musicology MA in September of 2018. In that time, I conducted the LUUMS chamber and symphony orchestras, served as the society’s concerts manager and sat on the executive committee, helped organise a tour (something I’ll touch on later), played and sang in all of the ensembles that a violinist, singer and conductor could take part in, musically directed an opera, played in more than 20 productions, more than 50 concerts for the music society, composed and arranged as a freelancer, generally drank far too much, had too many trips to Pitza Cano (as if such a thing were possible) and, partially but not exclusively related to those last few things, embarrassed myself professionally and personally on countless occasions more than can really be forgiven.

I would not alter a second of my time at uni and my experiences in LUUMS, but this does not change the fact that looking back on it (amongst some great moments I’m very proud of) can be an unadulterated cringe-fest, a bit like a horrible, stomach-churning montage of “was I really like that?”

and “Oh God, I can’t 𝘣𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘷𝘦 I acted that way in that situation”. However, now working in education and often telling students that mistakes are the way we improve, I’m so glad I got as stuck in as I possibly could and made so many mistakes because they’ve given me the ideal chance to reflect and make myself into someone I’m so much happier to be (always an ongoing process, by the way). One of the many fraught times was in helping to organise and go on the orchestra tour the year I conducted the symphony orchestra. Looking back, I only really think of the positives, but the tension between those of us who had to organise it reached fairly feverish levels and the atmosphere became pretty unpleasant for everyone. I really love, admire and respect everyone who helped organise that tour, so I hope they don’t mind my saying with a few years’ hindsight that we were all in the wrong at times, none of us handled very it well but we resultantly all learned a huge amount from it.

Reflection like this is the first step to becoming a more effective leader. There were myriad instances of me being an ineffective leader at uni, not an easy person to work with, and very stuck-up and childish in many cases. What I will say is that it is a tough gig running an ensemble or MDing a show where your actual friends and peers are the participants. It’s a constant game of imposter syndrome and very difficult balance to strike of wanting to be everyone’s friend but also trying to take charge and make them respect you – 'make them respect you' – that attitude really sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s easy to say and difficult to learn that if you demand respect you don’t deserve it.

It took me almost until the end of my time at uni to really appreciate that a conductor is the only musician in an orchestra who doesn’t make a sound. Conductors and leaders in general are in a position of huge privilege, so the first absolute essential for an effective leader is empathy. If the people you’re leading can’t see that you’re trying to see things from multiple perspectives (including theirs) and doing your best to balance everyone’s happiness, you’ve lost. Instantly. Successful companies are coming to be structured so there are people who are really good at one thing – they should be deferred to for that thing, and then others are really good at another thing – they should be deferred to for that. I can’t play all the instruments in the orchestra, and I’m never the best in the room at the instruments I do play. I am hopefully the most qualified to lead and unite a team, and fingers crossed I know the full score better than anyone, but that still requires showing huge respect and equal standing to those who are experts at what they do. Once you see yourself as leading because leading is your role in the team rather than as a hierarchical position, everything becomes better.

Working with children as young as 5 or 6 can teach you loads about working with adults who are professional musicians and vice versa. To a certain extent, you’re playing a character when you lead a session of any type. The make-or-break of this character is whether it’s a total fiction (i.e. you try to be someone else because you think that will come across better) or based on you (essentially being yourself but slightly amplified and tweaked for the purposes of the unnatural situation of leading). The first one never works for children because they are remarkably perceptive, inescapably blunt and make it obvious that they know you’re faking it. The sucker punch comes when you realise it actually never works for adults, either, they’re just better at hiding it. Whether you’re working on Three Blind Mice or Mahler’s 5th Symphony, you can’t be present in the room if you’re hiding yourself.

If I were to pick a third cornerstone, alongside empathy and authenticity, it would be effective planning and preparation. Interestingly, this is also about mutual respect, because looking back, my planning was never up to scratch. I definitely knew the pieces really well, and I essentially knew what I wanted them to sound like, but the second revelation from working with kids is that if you have your exact outcomes in mind and everything else is tailored to lead up to that, the job does itself. There are always hurdles and unexpected hiccups, but everything will flow so much easier and you won’t be scrabbling around for how to address the next issue or scraping the barrel for things to do. Players in an orchestra and students in a classroom have a basic expectation that you, as the person leading them, will be on top of things and know what needs to be done. At least give them that respect. If you are a good musician and good at bluffing, you can fairly easily get yourself through a rehearsal relying on things you hear in the room and want to work on. The thing that has completely laid this approach bare and outed it as a terrible methodology is the Covid pandemic, because all rehearsals now happen online. If you’re trying to do a rehearsal online and you’re in the habit of winging it, you’re up a creek without a paddle by virtue of not being able to hear anyone, there’s no other way of putting it.

In almost all of the instances I wished something had come out better, the weak link was me, contrary to what I felt at the time. That’s the fourth tip for being a more successful leader: holding yourself accountable. “Joe Bloggs was being so difficult to work with” - perhaps Joe was being quite reasonable, and I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture, or “The clarinets were so slow to pick that up, it was like bashing my head against a brick wall!” – If I hadn’t explained it so poorly, and rigidly stuck to my guns, it wouldn’t have been so difficult for them. Or heaven forbid “The [unspecified instrumental section] are chatting and messing around in my rehearsal!” – Well, what did I do along the way to lose their respect? It’s very rare for people to act in that way if you’ve treated them the way they deserve.

As much as the pandemic has been an undoubted tragedy, one of the very few positives is that it’s making all of us examine the way we do things, especially the things that we take for granted and are now coming round to scrutinise. It has completely changed my personal perspectives on pedagogy and leadership and I’m absolutely certain that’s for the better. The double-edged blade is that I can also say with certainty that I’ll look back on this blog post at some point and find it horrifyingly cringey for reasons I can’t yet identify, but that’s a good thing: the more you get wrong, the more you have the opportunity to improve, so take your time getting stuck into as much extra-curricular stuff as you can so you can make as many mistakes as you possibly can.

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