“How would you describe your leadership style?” It’s a pretty common question, almost a cliché. Mindful of the scorn heaped on President Obama for his “leading from behind” concept by some of the more bellicose talking heads who thought it sounded weak, I hesitated. “I’d call it leading from below.”
Let me explain. Rather than a military analogy, as Obama’s was, mine is a musical one. For many years I had the great fortune to play tuba with a group of wonderful Milwaukeeans far more talented than I, in a brass quintet called esprit d’Brass. The modern brass quintet features 2 trumpets, French horn, trombone, and of course tuba. There is no conductor. So who leads it, you might ask? Go ahead, ask. OK, I’ll tell you. You might think it’s the first trumpet, which most often carries the melody, but in fact, it is the tuba.
First, we’d decide on what to play, and I was the one who had to remind everyone where in our collection of music books the piece was. Literally making sure we were on the same page. Next, we’d tune. And not to some nasally oboe. In a brass quintet, as in a concert band (like the charming Minnesota Freedom Band I currently play with), the tuning note is played by…the tuba. The rest of the band tunes to my B flat. When my horn is cold from sitting in the car all day it’s closer to an A, but they have to tune to it. That’s power.
Now, the tuba rarely has the melody or a solo. In many pieces, the tuba simply plays the downbeats. But in the absence of someone waving a baton in the front, that downbeat sets the tempo. Playing that bass part requires careful listening, so that if someone is straying a little ahead or behind, I can subtly emphasize the beat to restore the desired tempo. Also pretty powerful. (Of course, if I wanted to I could intentionally speed us up or slow us down too much, but that would be an abuse of power.)
Note that unlike the conductor of an orchestra, who may be familiar with how to play many different instruments, I would never presume tell the trumpet or horn how to play their instrument. I simply provide the right environment and let them do what they do well.
So, setting the direction, getting everyone on the same page, setting the tone and the tempo, and letting the experts excel. It may not sound sexy, but that’s leading – from below.