Five Golden Rules for Leadership

Five Golden Rules for Leadership

In 1927, the great composer and conductor, Richard Strauss, wrote up a piece entitled “The 10 Golden Rules for Young Conductors.” While I am neither a conductor nor a beginner in my field, his words still hit home for me. I believe his thoughtful advice rings true not just for conductors, but  all leaders. Here’s his entire list or you can just check out my top five leadership take-aways:

  1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.

Immediately, Strauss dives right into our purpose as a leader. As leaders, do we work for an impact, strive to meet our own needs/desires, or is it based on a desire to control others? Having a purpose beyond yourself can serve as fuel to increase the quality of our work. And do not worry, my fellow engineers, just because we know our purpose and our impact does not mean that we have to leap for joy and have passion shooting out of our veins. Strauss, himself, looked like he might fall asleep while conducting. Still, it was not apathy, but a desire to minimize himself to maximize the music. Therein lies the value of keeping our egos in check and being a servant leader.

  1. You should not perspire when conducting. Only the audience should get warm.

Of course, it would be great if the job never made us sweat. But after the last couple of years, the reminder that not everything is within our control is just a little too fresh. Even in Strauss’s world, I am sure things got off key from time to time. However, this still serves as a good reminder to keep perspective and don’t waste sweat on the unnecessary. So, imagine, if you will, the conductor flamboyantly flailing his arms with sweat streaming down his face compared with Strauss’s subdued boardroom version. Too often, we micromanage or overly invest in hypothetical scenarios or a million other things that are the leader’s version of useless flailing. It’s good, from time to time, to take a step back and assess our conducting style.

  1. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all, they are still too strong. If you think that the brass is now blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.

Now, perhaps I am cheating here by combining three separate points. However, as a leader, they come together as one fluid point for me. I will not be so flippant as to just say that leaders need to cultivate teamwork. This is so much more than that. It is knowing your team well enough to know how to balance the different personalities. We need to know who needs to be drawn out, which ones might need a little less encouragement, and how to harmonize all of these pieces perfectly.

  1. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy music. It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words, they will go to sleep. Always accompany the singer in such a way that he can sing without effort.

And to be completely honest, this point took a little extra googling on my end to understand. Apparently, Strauss’s pieces, Salome and Elektra, received some harsh critique that the orchestral parts were so strong that they drowned out the singers. While this could also be tossed under teamwork and keeping things balanced, I believe the greater point is what has often been the harder one for me — learn from criticism. He seems to have really taken that point to heart since three different rules circle around that topic.

  1. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.

This one might be my favorite. Unfortunately google and my limited musical experience failed me when it came to understanding this piece of advice. Maybe it is just simply, when you are going hard, go harder. I honestly don’t know. However what I do know is that, about 20 years later, he altered it. Instead of doubling the pace, he said take it half as fast. Just as we need to be open to the critiques of others, we also need to be open to learning from experience. It is not enough to stay on the same path because we have always done it that way. I don’t understand doubling or halving prestissimo because I am ignorant about music, so I cannot speak to the quality of either piece of advice. However, as a leader, I can appreciate a person who can go back 20 years later and say my previous advice was wrong (especially when there are solid reasons to back it up).

And instead of leaving you with a final word of my own, I’m going to blatantly plagiarize Strauss’s sentiment as he states it so much more eloquently than I could: “If you follow these rules carefully, you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.”


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and interview subjects and not necessarily those of IEEE or IEEE-USA.

Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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