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A Music Director’s Perspective on Leadership: Abandoning the Dictator Model

Michael Gielniak

I have been studying the characteristics of effective leaders as far back as I can remember. When I became the drum major of my high school marching band, I also became interested in how the great classical “dictator-directors” such as Toscanini, Reiner, and Karajian operated. I also closely studied what coaches, band directors, and effective teachers did to motivate students. I quickly noticed a disconnect between the dictator model and the attributes of the leaders for whom I personally enjoyed working. As class president and resident advisor during my undergraduate years, I gained valuable experience dealing with a wide variety of personalities and difficult issues. While at VanderCook I also had the great fortune to play under such giants of the band world as Painter, Ravelli, and Begian, among others. We worked our butts off for these guys, but not out of a commitment to the music, but rather out of fear. Fear is a powerful tool that directors often use to motivate students to high levels of achievement. What happens, though, when this external stimulus is removed? Furthermore, does this method work when you don’t have a legendary career to back you up? Throughout the years I have read many books that helped guide my thinking about leadership and I have also met and worked with several incredible leaders who transformed the way I see the world. In this article I will try to share some of the wisdom that helped me move from being a “dictator” director to an educator who helps students reach their full potential.

After reviewing my favorite leadership quotes and books, I noticed that they tend to fall into three main categories. First, there seems to be a set of personal characteristics that lay the foundation upon which leadership is cultivated. Second, there are specific things a person must understand about human behavior before people will want to follow him. And third, there are several common strategies that great leaders use to aid in their success.

I don’t know who originally said it (I heard it from Tim Lautzenheiser), but the idea that “You can’t lead others until you lead yourself” seems to be an essential element of every great leader. I have heard others put it as “You have to walk the walk.” However it may be expressed, to me it means that leadership is not something you do, but is something you are. But what exactly does this mean. I have tried to break down the traits involved in self-leadership. I believe it is a combination of hard work, positive attitude, and clear vision. In “The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” Dr. Roberts states, “A wise Chieftan never depends on luck. Rather, he always trusts his future to hard work, stamina, tenacity, and a positive attitude.” This last trait, “positive attitude”, is also stressed in the motivational film “Fish”. Even Tim Lauzenheiser starts every seminar with the idea that you choose your attitude. And most recently, Dewitt Jones used the camera metaphor in his training video, Everyday Creativity, to explain that you must choose the right perspective if you are going to be successful.

“Hard work” is a characteristic that I tent to take for granted. This may stem from the way I was raised. I was taught that you work until the job is done. Both of my parents modeled this work ethic, as well as my grandparents. I hear from teachers all of the time that they would do this or that if they only had more time, money, support, etc. What I say to them is, “If you want something, go do it. Don’t wait for someone else to enable you.” As Nike says, “Just do it!”

I guess I also take vision for granted. I have always known what I want to do. What I want might change, but I always have a plan to make things in my environment more extraordinary. I have watched many people struggle with their personal goals, especially during my undergraduate work, but it hasn’t been until recently that I began analyzing the development of vision. It seems as though vision comes from making the best possible choice about a situation from the information available, but there is also a component that includes an understanding of what the future might hold.

There is one other aspect that I believe is essential to self-leadership. I have not seen this aspect discussed in leadership books and I am not sure I can accurately describe it. It has to do with perspective and ego. It also has to do with not fearing embarrassment. Some may call it keeping an open mind or being humble. I like to call it egolessness. It is a quality that the most brilliant people I have known possess. There is a complete openness about what they know and don’t know. There is a supreme selflessness in their attitude, and there is an intense curiosity to understand. Many people have expounded on the subject of the corruption of power. I find that power can inflate the ego to dangerous levels. I can’t begin to count how often I have seen a person’s ego get in the way of unimaginable success.

Essential Understandings of a Leader

I don’t believe that anyone can motivate another person. True motivation is intrinsic. If the person is not motivated from within, then it is not true motivation, but rather manipulation. This philosophy is at the core of how I was taught at VanderCook College. One of the founding principles of the school was, “No man can be rightly taught until he feels a real need in his life or in his work.” Dr. Roberts also stated a variation of this principle in his book when he wrote, “Every Hun is responsible for shaping his life’s circumstances and experiences into success – no other Hun, and certainly no Roman, can do for a Hun what he neglects to do for himself.” The question then becomes, “what can a leader do to create interest in his or her beliefs?” We can demonstrate what is possible. We can create a vision and present various paths to success. We can be passionate in our quest and invite others to come along. Ultimately, however, everyone makes his or her individual choice. So maybe the more appropriate question is “How does a leader guide people to a collective vision?”

The Leader’s Path to Success

If I had enough ribbon I could conquer the world
-Napoleon Bonaparte

Leaders are uniquely positioned to ensure that amid the busyness and bombardment that all organizations endure, the dream remains central. Leaders nourish the dream by keeping each person fully aware of an organization’s purpose and goals. Individuals also need to know that, without a doubt, their efforts contribute meaningfully to the purpose and goals. (Schmoker, 1996). I have been repeatedly surprised how hard people are willing to work when they know that their efforts are meaningful. I work with a variety of cultural and educational organizations and I have seen both sides of this coin. Working in schools can often be frustrating when faced with a group of disenchanted teachers. They often say that my work is just another fad and that nothing will ultimately change. It is a long and difficult process to re-engage such teachers. They have had numerous experiences where their efforts were meaningless, and they have adopted the attitude that they will “believe it when they see it.” All people need to have meaningful work to do, and they need their leaders to recognize them for their accomplishments. People must believe, however, that the methods of celebrating these accomplishments are more than a bald attempt to manipulate or control behavior. They must see praise and recognition as an extension of a leader’s character (Blas and Kirby, 1992). I believe that leaders must be authentic. The must be honest and open in their communication, even if the communication is unpleasant. I have found that people respond very positively to the truth and that many of the teachers that I work with are shocked (but ultimately supportive) when I lay all of the cards on the table. I believe strongly in working together to find the best solutions.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Leadership is not something you are born with and it is not something that you acquire. It is, rather, a never-ending process of self-examination and hard work. Leadership is born out of a desire to achieve excellence. Leadership is directed through passion and vision. Its power is maintained through positive attitude and compassion. And leadership spreads its wings and flies through effective communication. Nobody wakes up in the morning and magically can do all of these things. Leadership is honed with practice and experience. I feel fortunate to have had many opportunities to practice my leadership skill and I am looking forward to learning more every day so I will have more to share in the future. If you have comments regarding this article or other education issues, feel free to contact me through The Center for Creative Learning and Teaching icon below.

Michael Gielniak has been working with students around the globe for 20 years. He holds degrees from VanderCook College in Chicago, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich, and Oakland University. Mr. Gielniak has studied with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache, Nicholas Harnoncourt, and Guenter Herbig, and has worked with professional and youth orchestras throughout Europe. Mr. Gielniak began his teaching career in the Chicago Public Schools and served as the Fine Arts Coordinator in the Berkley School District and as the Fine Arts and Gifted and Talented Consultant for the Macomb Intermediate School District. In his position at the Macomb ISD, Mr. Gielniak worked with the 21 Macomb County school districts to develop standards-based arts programs, implement professional artist residencies and raise funds through local, state and federal grants. He continues to work extensively with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and school districts around the country. Mr. Gielniak has been involved with several notable projects at MDE that include managing the development of arts content for the Clarifying Language in Michigan Benchmarks (MiClimb), serving on the rubric development committee for Education, Yes!, and reviewing Michigan’s teacher preparation standards in the fine arts. Mr. Gielniak is currently the Executive Director of The Center for Creative Learning and Teaching, an educational think-tank involved in research, staff development and advocacy.