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.
I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop this morning preparing to write something about framing when a woman outside caught my eye. She was motionless on the sidewalk of a busy street below where streetcars and heavy traffic move constantly. The scene looked something like this:
My camera shots don’t show everything close by – the woman crossing the street was almost run over by a passing car, a streetcar or two passed, and a bike nearly ran into the woman on the sidewalk. Her world was framed by a device that measures about 2.5 x 5.5 inches. As you can see, she was totally absorbed in it.
We are shrinking our frameworks – and ironically expanding them at the same time. Our phones allow us to go anywhere in the digital universe. The question is whether the digital framework will affect our sense of possibility in the real one.
Most of us have been exposed to the diagram puzzle below where we are asked to connect the dots using only four lines without lifting the pen/pencil from the page.
The square is a shape that we know all too well and the shape suggests a straight-forward solution – except that it takes five lines instead of four. The real solution requires us to move outside the frame.
We can observe that we first focused on numbers and measurement in trying to find the solution. But what we have to do is place the image in a much larger box to see more possibilities
The new frame doesn’t necessarily have to be square. It could be a rectangle or ciccle. It just has to be bigger.
When we look for new possibilities, thinking quantitatively will not always work. Other elements also come into play in real transformation. Moving from one frame to another can depend upon seeing relationships – sometimes with people, but also relationships in a universe filled with “joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion and compassion” as the writer of The Art of Possibility says. When we expand the frame, it opens up more than we can initially ask or imagine.
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!
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.
In times of fear and greed, what the Zanders call for is standing firm in the realm of possibility. And this depends on leadership. It often involves asking a new question rather than finding answers to old ones, or reinterpreting to gain a new understanding of purpose.
Ben tells a lovely story of his student orchestra in South America playing magnificently and then staying up late, annoying the hotel patrons with noise, going to bars when they were under age – all typical student exuberance. Rather than bawling them out the next morning for bad behaviour he simply asked them the purpose of the tour, – musical excellence only or ambassador? The kids got it and looked sheepish.
He goes after mission statements and their blandness. I did the same thing recently with a prospective client when I observed that their mission statement wasn’t a mission statement at all. It simply described what they did. If they wanted to gain support from others, they would have to provide some inspiration based on their higher purpose instead of their collective job description. Vision after all is something that people have to see and be inspired by
And he asked his music students to write complimentary letters to the NASA team before he went there to give a workshop. The kids provided the burnt out NASA employees with new energy as they realized what their efforts meant to others. As in other chapters, memorable stories provide a way to move others where we want them to go.
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.
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.