Oboes and leadership


If you’ve been to a symphony concert, you’ve witnessed the cacophony of sound before the concert begins. Every instrument seems to be in its own world, independently running through the musical scale. 

Actually, this is a traditional and deliberate process to tune all of the instruments. First, a single instrument plays the note of A, then the other musicians tune their instruments to that note at the same time. Once an instrument is in tune, the musician often warms up by going through the scale. The objective is for each instrument to be perfectly in tune with every other instrument when the concert begins. 

Although other instruments can be used for this purpose, an oboe is generally preferred, because its steady sound stands out from the others in the orchestra. The note of A is used, because all of the string instruments have A-strings. 

All of this means that the oboe sets the pace for the entire orchestra. It’s easy to see a direct comparison to a leader’s role in the business world. A few points come to mind: 

  1. Leaders lead by example. They have to be in tune, themselves, before they are ready to lead others. Even though the old way of doing things (“Do as I say, not as I do.”) never really worked, a lot of so-called leaders cling to that idea. Maybe it’s habit, maybe it’s insecurity, maybe they’ve never seen any other way. 

A leader has been defined as “someone who has earned the right to have followers.” One of the surest ways to earn that right is be an example for others. The oboist plays A, not E or D or any other note. 

If you want your team to be better listeners, be a better listener, yourself. If you want your team to be punctual, be punctual, yourself. If you want your team to understand the principles of effective ad copy and design, know them, yourself. 

  1. Leaders don’t micromanage. You’ll never see an oboist walking around to make sure the others are tuning properly. He or she stays seated, secure in the knowledge that the musicians are qualified to tune their instruments. 

If a leader has done a proper job of training, there is no need to micromanage. All micromanagement does is give the manager a false sense of control over something in which he or she lacks confidence.

  1. Leaders periodically review goals. Tuning is not a one-and-done activity. After the intermission in a concert, the orchestra repeats the tuning process. Adjustments are expected. Nothing is left to chance. 

Over time, team objectives require adjustments. Perhaps economic winds have shifted, clients have increased or decreased budgets, or new competitors have emerged. Although those changes may seem minor at first, they can develop into huge problems later. True leaders have the flexibility to review goals and make necessary tweaks along the way. 

You could say that – in music and in business – leadership is largely a matter of striking the right chord. 


(c) Copyright 2022 by John Foust. All rights reserved.



John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information: john@johnfoust.com