Drumming Up Leadership Skills with Marching Bands

Leadership lessons can be taken from almost anywhere. In today’s Advisor, guest columnist Ritch Eich, author of Truth, Trust + Tenacity: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders, discusses the unique leadership skills demonstrated by marching bands.

Sometimes talent comes from the most unlikely places. Though many of our future business leaders are likely to come from top MBA programs and military branches, these should not be the only avenues to search, especially when looking for leaders with a different point of view.

An often-overlooked arena for leadership development is the arts. Music, fine arts, and theater all require an above-average level of creativity, plus a high level of discipline, teamwork, perseverance, and commitment that are extremely valuable in business.

Consider the marching band. I confess to being an avid football fan, and I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening to an excellent marching band. Having had the good fortune of observing three giants in the collegiate ranks while in school—bandmasters Leonard Falcone of Michigan State University and William Revelli and his successor George Cavender of the University of Michigan (who refined the “high step” and University of Michigan’s innovative uniform designs)—I saw firsthand how they married their love of music with the highest standards of excellence and had an uncanny ability to inspire college students with unremitting discipline.

Under Revelli’s direction, the Michigan marching band was the first to use original scores and employ synchronized music and movements. The performers were highly praised for their precision, formations, and style. Revelli would not accept mediocrity in his organization.

Los Angeles is also fortunate to have one of the greatest college marching bands in existence today, the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan marching band. Founded in 1880, the band has made hundreds of live appearances on TV and in movies; has performed at the Olympics, the Rose Bowl, the Academy Awards, and the Grammys; has performed for several U.S. presidents; and has earned two platinum records.

Colts Depart, but Band Doesn’t

I’ll never forget the story of “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.” In 1984, the all-volunteer Baltimore Colts marching band managed to work together and keep the band in their city when the Colts franchise was sold to Indianapolis. The creativity, loyalty, and teamwork they showed in this endeavor are noteworthy.

In the wee hours of the morning when the Colts began their now infamous move to Indianapolis, the band members managed to remove their equipment—before the Mayflower moving vans arrived—and got their uniforms, which were at the dry cleaners, and hid them in a member’s cemetery vault until the franchise gave them permission to keep them.

It was the band’s incredible dedication and moxie over the next 12 years that convinced the Maryland legislature to fund a new football stadium and that finally brought the Ravens franchise to Baltimore in 1996.

So, what specific leadership skills can we learn from these bands?

  • Falcone, Revelli, and Cavender were excellent teachers who instilled pride and enthusiasm in their marching bands. They taught their bands how to attain excellence, even perfection, in performance, and how industry, discipline, and love of the arts are lifetime skills, applicable to success in any endeavor.
  • The Trojan marching band is recognized internationally for organizational ability, ambassadorial skills, and talent. Interestingly, USC conductor Arthur Bartner received all three of his degrees from the University of Michigan, and Revelli was his mentor.
  • The Baltimore Colts (now Ravens) marching band displayed how creativity and theatrical showmanship can work to move obstacles.
  • Passion is essential. For the Colts marching band, it was a deep abiding loyalty and love for their city and for each other. For Falcone, Revelli, and Cavender, it was a deep appreciation for what music can do and for tradition, innovation, and their universities.


When considering the achievements of these bands and the qualities that brought their successes, it’s apparent that businesses must search out new talent in different places. The future of their organizations may well depend on it.

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