School & District Management Opinion

When Leaders Lead Their Schools Like Ben Zander Conducts Symphonies

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 19, 2017 4 min read
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Are you a list maker? Do you write them down or carry them in your head, are they on your phone or tablet or still on pieces of paper? Do they ever get shorter? There is always so much to be done. Most leaders who have goals also have lists of steps that need to be done. The tug between wanting to get things done and wanting to be respectful of the people who will be doing the work with you is a leadership dance. As you step onto the dance floor you and your partner know who is leading. The beauty and ease of the dance happens when leader and partners hear and feel the same music and are in step. No non-mandated change can happen in schools if teachers aren’t our partners. But, haven’t you heard or seen moments when we wonder if we are even attempting the same dance?

When change has to take place, if it comes from mandate or law, the leader can chose to be only a messenger, expressing varying degrees of enthusiasm for the change. Not so, if the change is non-mandated and locally designed. All change can be disruptive and disturbing but non-mandated change requires more enthusiasm from the leader. It is more frequently a better way, one that honors both the people and the process, one that is local, inclusive, motivating, and distributed, one that evidences planning, and, if all that happens and results are what was desired, it can become sustainable.

Nothing new can happen in schools without affecting the teachers. Leaving them out of the conversation and the planning is foolhardy. If we want the benefit of our energy and work to reach the students, the momentum of the work must involve everyone. People seek meaningful work. This is particularly true for those in the serving professions like education. Finding meaning in your work can be challenging when change is not handled well. When leaders are focused on their tasks and not the people responsible for carrying them out, that momentum cannot even begin. Even the best of us can succumb to cynicism and judgment in those cases.

What are the changes that are or need to be occurring in your school or district? Who is engaged in the change process, the supporters, the skeptics, the professional experts, the observers, the communicators, the record keepers? Who are the musicians in the orchestra a school leader is conducting? The posting below looks at the metaphor of leader as an orchestra conductor in developing a systems approach to quality academic leadership*

In a now-famous presentation at the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Long Beach, California, Benjamin Zander (2009), music director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, described a moment that entirely changed the way he approached his job. He noted that not until after he had been at the podium for twenty years did he realize that the conductor is the only person in the orchestra who \"doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.\" In other words, great conductors aren’t those who demonstrate their creativity through skill on an instrument or the beauty of their own performances. Rather, they are judged by their ability to produce an environment in which the artistry of others may emerge and the quality of that performance may be experienced (Tomorrow’s Professor Posting. Stanford University).

Here we share the entire Ted Talk where Ben Zander describes the role of conductor/leader as the one who makes other people powerful.


Teachers are recognized by the successes of their students. When observed teaching, they may be told they are doing a good job, or they may be commended for a specific practice or risk. But rarely does a leader hear, “Great job leading” or “You made a real difference”’. It is in the hard work of the students, designed and led by their teachers, and orchestrated by the leader that is the evidence of successful leadership.

The work of the leader comes with many challenges, fiscal, human, regulatory and political. Often it may seem easier to just issue an order, to make the decision, provide some training, and leave the implementation to others. But easier is not the best route to success, especially when attempting change.

Schools across the country have adopted new standards, assessments, and technology, some have embraced project based learning, and others have adopted interdisciplinary classes. But, overall, schools have barely changed. We need leaders, like conductors, who lead by empowering those s/he leads. Otherwise there is no music and certainly they’ll be no dance.


* Chapter 9, The Academic Leader as Conductor, in the book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, but Jeffrey L. Buller. Published by Jossey-Bass. A Wiley Brand, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594-www.josseybass.com. Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Photo by stokkete courtesy of 123rf


Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into becoming 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.