Meet 'Mr Possible'

2008-09-05 00:00

WHY has Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, appeared four times as the keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos?

What can a musical man, heading fast for 70, teach a roomful of jaded global leaders?

And what is he doing to pack halls in Cape Town and, among other things, to get thousands of tired South Africans to bellow out Ode to Joy, in German, together, before exploding into resounding applause?

Well, it’s simple, really. What Zander is telling politicians, business leaders and ordinary people, through constant reference to music, is this: “Believe more in the possibilities that life can offer”.

Zander, whose lectures have inspired the thinking of global institutions and corporations such as Nasa and Shell, is currently on a 21-day trip to South Africa, with his partner and co-author of the book The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander, to give presentations on possibility and to conduct the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra in a number of performances.

His performance last week, with the orchestra and two Cape-based choirs, of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, had the Cape Town city hall packed to capacity. His Art of Possibility lectures — which make use of musical metaphors and which he travels the world to deliver — have received standing ovations.

“South Africa needs to speak differently if it is to succeed,” says Zander, who believes it is crucial to see the possibility, “rather than falling into a downward spiral of blame”.

It’s a message which nearly 15 000 South Africans will hear by the time he leaves the country.

The Zanders’ aim on this trip is to “spread the model of possibility thinking as far as possible”. It’s a model, which, combined with Zander’s passion for music, has captured the imagination of world leaders and led them to ask Zander to open the WEF in January next year.

Zander, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is recognised as one of the greatest conductors in the world. He made his name as an interpreter of the music of the composer, Gustav Mahler. He has held the position of music director at the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra since 1979 and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music. He also lectures on leadership, drawing often on his experience as a conductor.

Zander doesn’t mince his words about South Africa. “We love this country. We know there are lots of problems. You name it, you’ve got the problem. I just want to say that Canada is very, very cold. England is very crowded. Australia is unbelievably boring.

“This [country] has to be made to work. The stakes here are very high — but we have never seen anything like the eagerness South Africans have to grapple with the issues.”

Zander’s appeal for world leaders, is, among other things, in his conductor-as-leader metaphor. He believes in a leadership model where “everyone becomes part of the song. The leader’s job becomes a job of possibility. As the orchestra’s leader, the conductor must bring out the best in everyone.” His pre-concert speeches have become legendary and he promises to make anybody “love and understand” classical music within 11 minutes.

“It’s probably not wise to ask a conductor about leadership — a conductor is one of the last bastions of autocracy in the world,” quips the man, who has the power to tell 690 musicians at a time what to do.

“But at the age of 45, I realised that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. I realised my job is to awaken possibilities in other people. If the people in my orchestra have shining eyes, then I know that I am doing my job.”

His task as conductor, he says, is to help others find and use their potential and to build them up to a place where they are at their most productive. “In a symphony, as in business, one person can’t do it all. Great music is made when everyone gives his or her best. My job is to remind people of this.”

He describes himself as an ambassador for classical music and says everyone loves classical music — “they just haven’t realised it yet”. He speaks with passion about Mahler and Beethoven: “Much of Beethoven’s work was aimed at jolting us out of our complacency. Look at the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven teaches us that however much we suffer and however hard the struggle, there is always a pathway to glory and triumph. It is a celebration of the brotherhood of man.”

He believes that the hierarchical system of leadership is fast becoming outdated and people around the world are looking for new ways and new models. This new way of thinking means leaders have more of a responsibility to keep a vision alive and to keep everybody aligned.

As the conductor, his philosophy is that “everyone gets an A”. He begs his players to quieten the voice in their heads that says, “I can’t do it”, and rather to focus on the passion of playing. He believes that, in societies, as in the orchestra, the players must be drawn out of a negative spiral of competition and anxiety. “They should focus on contribution, on radiating energy, achieving the possible and on giving of themselves unconditionally.”

Zander is convinced that the next 30 years are going to be the most exciting in the history of humanity. Key to dealing with the challenges is to engage with the possibilities that exist. He recalls a father who, for as long as he knew him, never complained about anything. “He used to say there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing,” says Zander. “He always used to say you can’t live a full life under the shadow of bitterness.”

Zander dreams of the day when Jews and Arabs can say to each other: “What a wonderful privilege it is to share this land with you. Look at what we can teach the world with our culture, art and civilisation.”

He also has big dreams for South Africa, a country he has visited seven times before this visit. It’s the warmest, most open-hearted society he knows and he says we have to make it work. “The whole world is watching, South Africa.”

• Among Zander’s ideas, contained in his book, are these tips for leaders and ordinary people.

Take risks — and, if you make a mistake, learn from it and just say, “How fascinating!”

Don’t be obsessed with success or failure. Focus on what you are contributing.

“It is pointless to be constantly asking, am I better than him? Don’t measure and compare all the time. Rather contribute.”

True power comes from making other people powerful.

Don’t take yourself too seriously!

• Give way to passion.

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