Leadership & the Art of Possibility

“Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams back to Manchester. And one of them wrote, ‘Situation hopeless. Stop. They don’t wear shoes.’ And the other one wrote, ‘Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.’”

—Benjamin Zander in his TED Talk, “The Transformative Power of Classical Music”

Image of a piece of a music sheet.
Photo courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Benjamin Zander has been the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic since it began 25 years ago. He has unbounded passion for classical music. He also has limitless passion for leadership, capturing insights, philosophy and practices in a very creative work titled “The Art of Possibility.” To say that Zander is inspiring understates the case. To get a small but mighty dose, view Zander’s TED Talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.

Zander reminds us that the world is full of possibility. So, despite the naysayers, doomsayers and statistics that would suggest otherwise, classical music is not dying. It is simply not yet discovered by many. No one has led these masses of people to classical music or helped them experience the richness of it. Is this “situation hopeless” or a “glorious opportunity”? You guessed it. Zander, in his ineffable zeal, chooses the latter.

But Zander’s way of making music come alive in the minds, hearts and souls of throngs of people, from executive ranks all the way to school children, is not just about learning to love the music itself. The act of using music as Zander does educates as much as it entertains. Music—complete with conductor and orchestra—becomes a metaphor for leadership anywhere and everywhere. In any arena. Just as countless people have yet to catch a fervor for classical music, employees have yet to catch the fire, too.

What fire? The fire for their work. What’s the missing ingredient? Leadership.

In Zander’s view, a vital characteristic of leadership is “that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had said, ‘I have a dream. Of course, I’m not sure they’ll be up to it.’” So, leadership begins with the conviction and clarity of the leader.

Over the years, plenty of brilliant people have attempted to point this out to humankind. Centuries ago, the Greeks offered the myth of Pygmalion to point out the phenomenon of how a leader’s expectations influence followers’ behavior. The big idea? Leaders have power to transform the minds, hearts and lives of many, and really great leaders wield that power to the betterment of those they lead. How do they do it? Through a deep conviction in their own ability to make things happen, coupled with the highest expectations about what others can and will achieve. Such leaders know—by intuition or training or both—that what one expects does typically end up becoming reality. People rise or fall to the expectations of the leader. The lesson? Be careful what you think; it may just come true.

Zander also talks about the long, long line of musical notes traveling from B to E. Beginning pianists play each note, one by one, failing to tie one note to the next, emphasizing each one quite distinctly. Zander calls these strikes on the keys as “impulses.” Expert pianists, on the other hand, play the long line, stringing the individual notes into a long line of melody, seamless and captivating to the listener. The attention to the whole first, as a container for many small notes, makes the listening a joy as opposed to a jostling, disjointed experience.

In the same way, employees often work as beginning pianists play, emphasizing individual notes without regard for the whole of the performance. They tick tasks off of a list with little thought about the bigger picture or deeper meaning of the work. The performance is adequate, but not rich with nuance, as the individual notes get played with little regard for anything beyond them. Like beginning pianists, such employees don’t play the long line.

Zander is honest to say that he had been conducting for 20 years before realizing that the conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. Not a sound. At that point in his career, Zander realized that his power comes from his ability to make other people powerful. The job of a leader is quite simply to “awaken possibility in other people.” How do you know when you’re doing it? Zander would answer simply. Look into the employees’ eyes. If the eyes are shining, you know you are doing it.

What is success for Benjamin Zander then? No, it’s not fame or power or money. “It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me.”

How many shining eyes do you see in your organization?

What are your truest, deepest expectations of people?

How often do those expectations become reality?

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