Making Room for Leadership

I was in Washington DC last week, waiting for the cherry blossoms to bloom. Spring has inspired me to write again, thinking about rebirth and opportunities for change. I recently lost a strong teacher in the el Sistema program in Durham, NC that I run, called KidZNotes. She was from Venezuela, had the authentic experience of growing up in el Sistema there, and was well liked and respected by her colleagues.

When she decided to suddenly step down, I thought we were in for a train wreck. However, in the coming weeks as I scrambled to make ends meet, I was pleasantly surprised by who stepped in when she left. Where she had been a big personality and influence, I was surprised to learn that there were 4 or 5 people on our team who were absolutely ready to contribute to fill that void, and to make it their own. Where there had been one overarching idea, now there are 5 fresh perspectives, each new person contributing to solving problems and adding innovative ideas to advancing our work.

Despite my own past experience of being characterized as “aggressively ambitious” for having to push my way through at work and like a seedling, forcing space for the room I needed to sprout and grow, I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t created room for my own team members to become leaders in their own right. Good employees constantly seek a path of personal and professional advancement, and there always needs to be a place for them to go. I’ve read and thought a lot about leading a team, encouraging each person on my “bus” (read Jim Collins’ Good to Great) to find their strengths and inspire others to excel as an interconnected web. Leading from behind is an idea that’s been mocked in politics as “following,” but in my team it’s been hugely beneficial. Not only are there new ideas and new energy filling the space where my teacher stepped down, but there’s also room to grow for those new ideas.

In el Sistema, even at the professional levels, the orchestra members rotate chairs. There are rotating principals, and each musician sits in a new chair every concert cycle. As students, they rotate nearly every piece for every concert, and as professionals, they use rotation as a sound-development opportunity, creating a cohesive sound throughout the orchestra, with every player learning how to play into every other player they sit with. Listening becomes a highly developed skill, and new people are put in leadership positions on a regular basis. Leading from every chair takes on a new meaning, when you put your leaders literally in every chair of the orchestra.

Noticing our new space for leadership has inspired me to consider the potential and trajectory for every member of our team. I’ve imagined inviting each member to consider personalizing their professional development, and I’ve imagined opening up our projects each year, (concerts, competitions, auditions, etc.) inviting team members to “bid” on projects that match their interest and skills paired with our needs. This system of rotating leadership responsibilities through project opportunities catered to each team member’s strengths could create a much stronger team across the ranks, and allow each member to shine and be recognized by their colleagues. Like rotating chairs in the el Sistema orchestras, each member of my team could be principals.

About the author

Katie Wyatt
Katie Wyatt

“Music and the arts can level the playing field for all people, no matter their social or economic background.”

Katie Wyatt is an accomplished musician, educator and innovator in music and social entrepreneurship. Katie co-founded and assumed the post of Executive Director of KidZNotes in July 2010. Including her work in El Sistema, Katie is a national leader in creating programs for access and opportunity for all children to experience the transformative power of music. She was a keynote speaker for the League of American Orchestra’s 2011 National Conference on “Creating an Environment for Innovation,” and has led seminars and consulted in music and social entrepreneurship nationally and internationally, including as faculty with the New World Symphony, League of American Orchestras regional seminars and at Carnegie Hall, the Panama Jazz Festival, the New England Conservatory Sistema Fellows program, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Academy at Julliard, and orchestras and youth orchestras across the country. From 2007-2009, Ms. Wyatt served as Director of Education and Community Engagement for the North Carolina Symphony where she created and expanded programs statewide that would inspire and captivate young audiences. Recently Ms. Wyatt was named as one of Musical America WorldWide's " 30 Under 40 Rising Stars of the Performing Arts Industry" and won the statewide 2012 “Young Careerist” award by the Business Professional Women of North Carolina. 

As an accomplished violist, Katie has toured and performed nationally and internationally with the orchestras of the New World Symphony, Verbier Festival Orchestra, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and the Spoleto Festival of Charleston, S.C., in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, China, Japan, and Taiwan. As an educator, she's coached North Carolina statewide strings competitions, maintains a private studio, and served as Adjunct Professor of Viola at N.C. State University from 2007-2009. Her call to leadership in social justice through the arts was inspired by YOA’s joint performances with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Caracas, Venezuela in 2005. The power and success of El Sistema moved her to begin channeling her passion for music to benefitting communities and positively affecting social change. Wyatt speaks Spanish and French and holds bachelor degrees in Political Science and Viola Performance from Indiana University and a Master’s Degree in Viola Performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Katie lives and works in Durham, NC and locally has enjoyed performing in the orchestras of Fayetteville and Durham, chamber music with her quartet, with the indie folk-rock chamber orchestra Lost in the Trees, and the indian-bluegrass fusion band Hindugrass.

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