Great Followership: Lessons from an Orchestra


The other night my wife and I enjoyed an amazing Il Divo concert with my sister and her husband.

While I thoroughly enjoyed our dinner on the beach beforehand, and the opulent beauty of the Copley Symphony Hall, I was most impressed by a brief and generally unnoticed event that played out in the orchestra. I witnessed what would be one of the most vivid demonstrations of followership I had ever seen.

While the four singers were raising the roof with a rousing rendition of “Who can I turn to?” the conductor dropped his baton.

The second violinist sitting directly in front of the conductor stopped playing, got out of his chair and crawled on his hands and knees to recover the baton. Still on all fours he reached up with the baton extending just next to the conductor’s music stand. Without missing a beat the conductor nabbed it mid-swing with seamless motion. The violinist gently backed into his seat and resumed playing his violin.

Later when I asked those around me if they saw what had happened, they all said that they were focused on the singers and missed what had transpired in the orchestra.

What impressed me most was the instant awareness and action of the violinist. He understood how important his own job was. But he also understood how critical the conductor’s role was. He understood that he was part of a team with a much larger impact than his own single contribution, and that the entire team relied on the leadership of the conductor. He knew that the most important thing he could do in that moment was to make sure his leader had what he needed in order to effectively lead the entire team.

He was an outstanding follower.

The leader knew it and was deeply appreciative. At the end of the number, when the roaring crowd was cheering the four singers, the conductor stood to the side of his music stand and bowed in appreciation to his second violinist.

Few in the crowd knew what happened. Everyone in the orchestra did.

Great followers understand that the most important thing they can do is to make sure the leader leads the entire team.

Great leaders understand that they cannot lead the entire team unless individual team members are committed to the collective success of the team.