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ATD Blog

Leadership in 3 Time Zones


Thu Feb 16 2017

Leadership in 3 Time Zones

ATD Human Capital is pleased to announce that John Childress will be a regular columnist for our blog, and will provide insightful comments and ideas on culture and human capital. Endorsed by Marshall Goldsmith and Stephen M.R. Covey, John brings a unique perspective to navigating change and delivering superior performance. 

My daughter was first violin and leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain a few years ago. Since then, she has been fortunate enough to play under the baton of several excellent classical music conductors, including Vasily Petrenko, Simone Young, Sir Mark Elder, Paul Daniels, François-Xavier Roth, and Edward Gardner. 


The National Youth Orchestra is made up of 165 teenage musicians. Each year, they have three 10-day courses—winter, spring, and summer—followed by three successive concerts in major venues around the United Kingdom, including the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Konzerthaus in Berlin. 

While the young players learn how an orchestra works and how the various instruments and parts fit together, they also get to see very different styles of conducting and orchestra leadership. All are experienced and professional conductors, yet each is effective at merging 165 individuals into a collective, high-performance orchestra. 

While we were having dinner one evening, my daughter was talking about the craft of conducting. She is an aspiring conductor, so she watches every conductor intently for style, technique, and musical expression. During the course of the meal she had an interesting insight about conducting and leadership.  

Basically, the conductor must simultaneously reside in three different time zones. The conductor has to live in the future; that is, know the score so well that she knows what is coming up next, what transitions are required, and whether the mood or tempo is about to change, and thus can get ready to lead the orchestra properly when the time arrives.  

At the same time, a conductor must live in the past. She must focus on what just happened, especially if one of the sections came in late or there was a mix-up during a tempo change. The conductor can then work to make tempo changes or other corrections and put the orchestra back on track. 


The conductor must also live in the present, being "at one" with each note and phrase, and the overall theme and "picture" of the piece as it is being played. It is here, in the moment, that the real musical expression and “colors” of the composition can be made to come alive for the audience.  

It’s a multidimensional time zone juggling act if there ever was one. 

Leadership in Three Time Zones  

Later on that evening, after everyone was in bed, I began to think about business leaders I have worked with and the craft of leadership. It dawned on me that a successful business leader, like a professional classical music conductor, has to live simultaneously in those same three time zones. 

The future is about seeing over the horizon and anticipating changes in markets or technologies that might throw the company off course. A big part of being successful as a CEO or business leader is the ability to see things others don't and help get the company prepared in advance. In this category falls such important activities as future executive development, capability building, investments in research and development, listening to customers for opportunities, tracking global and industry trends, hiring now for future needs, and seeking out strategic acquisitions.  

One of the main ways a business leader brings the future forward is by having an open and curious mind, putting seemingly unconnected bits of information together to make a new insight about the future. Good leaders read constantly not only about their industry, but also about social and political issues, as well as reading biographies of noteworthy leaders. They also are students of history, again looking to help interpret the future.  


Living in the past is about being able to honestly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and constantly using the techniques of root cause analysis to determine fundamental causes and outcome drivers. Continuously asking why and using the 5-Why process is a key skill good leaders use to learn from the past, make corrections, and avoid repeating the same mistakes. Equally important is to use past events to celebrate and recognize people and achievements. Recognition of actions, behaviors, and performance improvement is an excellent tool for leaders to reinforce a high-performance culture. It is also important to use the past, especially stories from the past, to reinforce and sustain the company values. 

And of course, a successful leader must live fully in the present. It is only in the present that real change takes place. It is also in the present that coaching and development is most effective. Relationships are built and strengthened in the present. A leader who lives too much in the past or the future misses many “here and now” opportunities to guide and influence people and the culture. 

Want to improve your leadership capability? Adjust your internal time zones!

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