Jason Lai - IMD Business School
News Stories · Leadership - Team Dynamics

Conducting leadership

To lead an organization successfully, you cannot just rely on data, you need an emotional connection with your team and with what you are doing, says world-renowned conductor Jason Lai.
November 2022

To lead an organization successfully, you cannot just rely on data, you need an emotional connection with your team and with what you are doing, says world-renowned conductor Jason Lai.

During his keynote address on “Leading self and others as an orchestra conductor” at IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance program in Singapore, Lai gave participants the experience of leading from another angle. He did this by allowing them the opportunity to conduct a 16-piece orchestra on stage. His objective was to give them the sense of what it takes to get the orchestra to work with you to achieve a common goal.

He used this experience to highlight to participants the importance of moving beyond their cognitive center when leading a team or organization. Instead, he encouraged them to concentrate on other aspects of themselves, their emotions and their body language, in order to get the best out of their team and, in doing so, drive performance and results.

Lai, who is the Principal Conductor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, has conducted orchestras globally, including the BBC Philharmonic, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and New Japan Philharmonic.

As a conductor, Lai admits to having had a steep learning curve, “having had fantastic performances and feeling like leaping off the stage in the end to at other times feeling that performances could have gone much better, which made me feel very down.”

This led him to think long and hard about what separated the success from the failure and to his work as an executive coach where he applies the learnings from 25 years in conducting to help executives become better leaders. This coaching involves making them aware of all parts of themselves, in order to get the best out of the people around them.

Tapping into our emotional and cognitive centers

“We have a cognitive center, but unfortunately we spend too much time up here. We are data driven, in fact, we are obsessed with it. We live in a society that rewards data, that rewards aiming for breaking records, earning as much profit as possible,” said Lai.

Lai points out that many people forget about what other tools we have at our disposal to lead successfully.

“Some of us don’t tend to realize that we have real estate below our neck, we ignore the emotional body because in business, emotion is bad.”

“But when you are leading teams in business and corporations, you need a sense of connection with your team. How do you connect? You cannot just rely on data, that is not going to work all the time. You need an emotional connection with your team or with what you are doing – your project.”

He also points to the importance of connecting with your body, and of being aware of how what you do and how you move impacts others.

“When you are stuck in your cognitive center, you don’t realize you have your body. You have to tap into this. I have to feel that sense of Beethoven when I am up there, I need to understand the emotions of the score and use my body to translate that when I am conducting. When we tap into our emotions and into our bodies, we have the possibility of relationships,” he explained.

A happy customer depends upon an engaged team

Comparing a CEO’s relationship with his or her team and consumers to that of a conductor with his or her orchestra and audience, Lai emphasized why connecting with your team is so important in driving results.

“As a conductor, I know that the real power comes from the orchestra, they make all the sound. So I have to keep my orchestra happy, keen, ready to work and energized in order to keep my audience happy. If I don’t, the orchestra will not give a high quality performance and the audience will simply not come back. This is why it is so important for me to understand them and to have a relationship with them,” said Lai.

Lai explains that the relationship is determined by how the conductor interacts with the orchestra, how engaged he or she is, how the conductor looks at them, responds to them and relates to them.

To demonstrate this in action he invited participants to conduct an orchestra in situ, offering real-time feedback. He urged them to look at what was going on from an emotional and cognitive perspective and within their the bodies during the experience, pointing out the importance of asking these same questions in a work environment.

For Lai, what his years as a conductor have made clear is that in order to give the audience what they need, it is important that he has a deep understanding of self in order to build a relationship with the orchestra. Without this, he is unable to clearly communicate and connect with the audience. The same goes for a CEO needing to build a deep relationship with his team in order to adequately respond to the needs of the consumer.

“It is important as leaders that you don’t try to hide, I know that there is a lot of talk about being vulnerable, but it is important. If we are trying to be less transparent, difficulties can arise. I hope you have seen today some of the leadership qualities that are required to be a conductor, and have seen the importance of having that sense of your cognitive center, your emotional center and your body center, and the role they must all play to lead successfully.”