Benjamin Zander, Leadership, Learning, Reflection, Teamwork


The orchestral conductor, Benjamin Zander, is a frequent business speaker and famous for his TED talk. now viewed by more than eight million people.  Conductors are sometimes viewed as the last of the great dictators.  Zander is different.  He had an epiphany some years ago when he realized that the conductor of an orchestra plays a different role.

The insight transformed his conducting and his orchestral musicians immediately noticed the difference.  Now he’s a leader who asks for input in the form of written comments at every rehearsal.  He understands that the musicians’ skills and experience enhance his own.

His gifts as a teacher are remarkable too and they are now shared through masterclasses for all of us on YouTube.  The students perform with technical brilliance before he enters in with a consistent message –  it is time to relax and let go of the kind of competitive excellence their preparatory training has provided and instead relate to their audience.  Transformation happens before our own shining eyes.  (This sample and others are well worth watching now or at a later time. To enjoy it to advantage if your time or tolerance is limited, listen a bit to the beginning and move the arrow to 9:00 minutes and watch some hair pulling – not a conventional teaching technique – but see how effectively it works in creating a totally different kind of performer).

Zander’s passion is for introducing classical music to those unfamiliar with it and he does so with incredible skill and experience in making audiences and performers connect.  It’s a worthwhile example of how a leader inspires and transforms performance.

Benjamin Zander, effectiveness, Reflection

More on Possibility

seedlingHow do we make change happen?  Pathways to Possibility, a book by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist and the wife of noted orchestral conductor Ben Zander, has some important reminders.  Transformation, in her view, involves systems or fields rather than CEOs or heroes. But behavior matters.

She focuses on being rather than doing.  While we try to do the right thing, no one has the full picture. Einstein noted that “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness around it”.  How we act relates to our past experience. Zander describes us as walking stories.

We are affected by what happens to us as children and the strong positive or negative feelings these events evoke.  Both become internalized and part of how we cope.  We bring them into the relationships in our lives, Families and organizations of all sizes become a network of tangled pasts.  We sometimes compare organizations to families and use words like warmth, caring, loyalty and belonging.  But hidden in the family metaphor, says Zander, are control, hierarchy, competition, neglect, coercion and smothering.  Groups of any size may be a living collection of child stories.

As we mature, we may discover on our own that the stories are not valid or universal and no longer apply. Sometimes it takes therapy or life changing events to bring them to the surface.  Zander suggests two strategies to overcome the hurtful experiences – to recognize them as memories located in the past or look at them as stages in our personal development. We don’t have to be stuck in them and entrap others in the process.  We can tell our stories and move on.  She says:

We reconcile by facts and words, we restore through how we relate and how we grow; we inspire through what we build and the art we make; and we cure ourselves by how we care for others and what we give away. In these ways, we bring our hearts into collective resonance and that is where our power lies.

Having dealt with individuals, Zander moves on to larger groupings and the ways we try to change people.  Her list includes management, patience, do as I say, exclusion loving manipulation, bribery and ultimatums.  As a parent and grandparent, I’ve used all of them consciously, if not wisely. It might be less obvious how all of us use them to organizations – but we do.  At a recent meeting, I watched people offer suggestions of what we might do to fix people we thought were less effective in defined roles.  But we excluded ourselves from the picture.

Zander’s insight is no surprise.  If we wish to shift change in an organization, it has to start with ourselves. She calls the process walking into a new story.  It is our being – not our doing – that will make the difference.

Offering good advice is out.  What we need to look for in others is what she terms the infinite self – we know this possibility in ourselves and our task is to see it in someone else.  rather than just look through the lens of our own story.  The task is to see possibility. The result is more likely to be collaboration.

Benjamin Zander, Edwin Friedman, effectiveness, Leadership, Reflection, vision

Possibility revisited

When I started this blog – which followed one created many years earlier – the tagline was suggested by a book by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander – entitled The Art of Possibility.  I first met Ben Zander on a TedTalk, where he introduced a bunch of techies to classical music.  The Talk has still maintained one of the highest ratings ever – over two million views. Their earlier book showed how both he and his wife have inspired many to bring out the best possibilities latent within themselves.

The new book, Pathways to Possibility, is even more explicit. Written by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family systems therapist, it resonates with another of my favorites in the field – Ed Friedman.  She unpacks the reality that most of our negative aspects arises from our own experiences as children, and unless we recognize and re-frame such experiences, they play into everything that we do as adults.  We can either recast them as memories – things in our past that no longer have control over us – or see them as part of our continuing story and growing maturity.  Her message is simple but profound.  I have seen this in action when another practitioner in the field helped a woman re-write a negative story and it changed her whole attitude in an instant.

Reading this book – and watching Ben Zander coach his music students on YouTube are excellent lessons for anyone who wants to initiate change – as another wise colleague has said – we have to be the change that we want to see happen.  Try these!

Benjamin Zander, Reflection

Telling the WE Story


Ben Zander starts this last chapter with a story that is totally timely. He relates how he arranged for a group of students to study in England and invited his father to come one evening to speak to them. The elder Zander traced a subject that was dear to his heart – the long and memorable history of the Jewish people. He then began another story – that of the Palestinian people and their history and achievements. His son wondered where we would be today if there had been a similar respect for and understanding of both cultures before the time of partition in 1947.

So much of our history has been one of us and them – of politicians, of those who occupy Wall Street from different perspectives, of faith groups – even those within the same denomination let alone those of different traditions, of volunteer boards whose members have different interests and agendas. It applies right down to the level of the family where the scapegoat is perceived as the problem.

Zander’s solution is to look for the possibility of common ground emerging. It doesn’t mean that we should lose our sense of differentiation and identity. But it does mean that we look at the possibility. He sees it in musical terms as the melody that can be harmonized. It asks us to look at the best possibility within ourselves rather than staying in fixed positions, to entertain the possibility of relationship rather than the separation caused by fear or greed. Scripture refers to this as “listening with the ear of the heart” for something new emerging.

Roz Zander also tells a good story of her work as a therapist in dealing with an autistic child. Sometimes entering the world of another, even when that world is distorted will reach through barriers to a sense of “us”. Ben tells other stories of breaking boundaries, such as the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, a model that is now being used in other countries to heal the divisions of the past.

A key phrase for me personally came out of a conference in which remarks were getting heated about a future piece of legislation for the organization. It ended when a comment came from the floor. “There is no us and them – there is just us.”

We’ve come to the end of the book and it is well worth a read – not to be short changed by the very brief excerpts from it here. If you are interested in possibility – this is a place to start.

Benjamin Zander, character, effectiveness, self realization

Being the board

Being the board

No – this is not about becoming a director – except perhaps of one’s own life. The Zanders note that when bad things happen to good people it is rather easy to become a victim. This stance, as others have noted, is really a form of self punishment that allows one to be stuck in a mindset that is ultimately self-destructive.

So rather than be a loser in a situation where one should have been a winner, The Art of Possibility suggests that one treat one’s self as the board on which the game is played. Life isn’t predictable – and just because we want it to be a certain way, doesn’t mean that will be the way it plays out. By doing anything, being anywhere, saying anything – we are exposing ourselves to risk. It’s part of life.

And rather than obsessing about why other people act the way they do, enter our path in a negative way or say hurtful or outrageous things – and we have all encountered these situations – the book invites us to ponder what our response might be. Rather than playing injured innocent, there may be some opportunities for learning.

Benjamin Zander, Creating, Innovation

Lighting a Spark


The Zanders are great story tellers. Ben starts by telling how his father made a long trip just to talk to someone face to face. He took the same stance when he wanted to hire the great cellist, Mitislav Rostropovich. When he couldn’t get past the gate-keeper secretary he simply got on the train to Washington and arrived unannounced. By making the invitation personal, he got exactly what he wanted and benefited in other ways from the association.

I can remember a personal encounter with the great Canadian broadcaster, Lister Sinclair. I needed to hire him for a workshop and the association I worked for could offer a $500 fee. His stated fee was $5,000. When I approached him personally, he decided he wanted to do it because he knew he was exactly the right person to inspire others on his topic which was one that he loved.

The metaphor of lighting a spark comes from the middle ages when those who needed to start a fire carried a hot coal at the ready. Sometimes that’s all it takes and a sudden change of direction works. Rosalind Zander relates a tale of getting a flat tire and having no change to access a gas station coin box to use the pump. She asked for change from another customer but no one had any. She suddenly changed her request to “Will you give me 50 cents so I can use it?” The customer smiled and immediately handed it over.

Ben’s final triumph came from inspiring a corporate sponsor for an event with the London Philharmonia Orchestra. He got a polite refusal from the major accounting firm for his request, but conversation turned to the company’s involvement with education in “failing schools”. So he decided to use that angle as a means of enrolling the company in helping in the area where they already had interest and involvement. Not only would he take a full symphony orchestra to the school for a performance, he would also ask them to bring 200 students to the famous Royal Albert Hall afterwards.

Classical music in such a school? Even the intrepid principal thought that the kids would be disrupting the whole procedure by 15 minutes in. It seemed a recipe for disaster. Moreover 100 corporate executives joined the 1100 students. Only Ben Zander could pull off having all of them joining in the final chorus of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

There is even more to the story and it is well worth the entire book. What the chapter demonstrates is the ability to enroll even the most reluctant partners by energy, excitement and determination – all part of the spark. Any of the You Tube videos shows this in action and says it much better than this.

Benjamin Zander, Creating

The Way Things Are

Zander’s next chapter starts with an excerpt from the film. Babe when the cow and the duck talk about the the disappearance of Roseanna who later turns up ons t a Christmas platter. The cow says that’s the way things are and the duck says the way things are stinks. We’ve often taken both sides of the argument.

The Zanders argue against resignation. When that is our attitude, even when we think we are moving forward we are often inserting language in the situation that attests to our belief that things won’t really work. I was amused the other day to hear someone say that in a month or two things are going to change when a new employee starts on the job. The look on his face shows that he thinks the scene can only get worse. He’s forecasting a downward spiral

downward spiral

Seeing the way things are doesn’t pretend that they are necessarily the way we want them to be. It’s our attitude toward reality that determines what will happen next. If we focus on everything that is wrong about the situation we draw attention to it and reinforce it. If we see that there actually are options, we can consider them in turn. Taking this stance has much in common with Appreciative Inquiry when one starts with what is positive in the situation. Those who have often been in the most dire of circumstances have yet retained the power to accept things exactly as they are and use that reality as their point of departure without judging it. Just doing so creates the momentum between where one wishes to go and where we are now. And there are lots of options to consider in all directions – just like a mind map


Canada’s Jack Layton, the federal politician who died this week all too young at 61 said it well in a letter that he penned just two days before his death.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let’s be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.