The Silent Conductor

“I had been a conductor for twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound… his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful.”

~ Ben Zander in The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Ben Zander, Chapter 5, “Leading From Any Chair.”

All my favorite leaders appeared in my mind as I read this beautiful line — now I could see their common superpower. Whether leading an orchestra, a family, an organization, a play, a fundraiser, a book club blog hop, a discussion, a restaurant, a private consultation, or a hike,  these heroes of mine don’t revel in their own control or just ensure others “feel powerful.” They want others to actually be powerful. And they make it happen.

Zander describes — with painful honesty — his pre-epiphany mindset:

 “Before that, my main concerns had been whether my interpretation was being appreciated by the audience and… the truth be known, whether the critics liked it because if they did it might lead to other opportunities and greater success.”

Truly em-powering others is a huge, huge part of living in the Universe of Possibility. Huge. Here is how Zander went about changing his life by powering-up those around him.

Step #1: Context: Asking yourself about and listening for how you want to feel

Interestingly — fittingly for a musical leader who can’t actually make a sound  — after Zander changed his mindset,  he didn’t make any pronouncements to those under his leadership. He changed the way he thought. He changed the questions that he was living:

  • “I began to ask myself questions like ‘What makes a group lively and engaged?‘ instead of ‘How good am I?'”
  • “I began to shift my attention to ‘how effective I was at enabling each musician to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable.’
  • How can I “speak to their passion?

Zander started “listening for passion and commitment.”  And thus nourished it.

“So palpable was the difference in my approach to conducting as a result of this ‘silent conductor’ insight, that players in the orchestra started asking me, ‘What happened to you?'”

Step #2: Feedback: Wordless and wordy

How do you know when you are fulfilling your role as leader?

Zander, again, started with the silent techniques: observing body language; making eye contact:

“… look in the eyes of the players and prepare to ask himself, ‘Who am I being that they are not shining?'”

Then he got into words. But he solicited them rather than doing all the talking himself:

Zander put a blank piece of paper on every player’s music stand — every day — and asked them to give him whatever information they wanted him to have. And he allowed himself to be affected by what they wrote — to consider their desires for fuller expression. Despite the obviously scary possibilities, the anonymous  “White Sheets” proved to be a resoundingly positive experience not only for the players but for the conductor.

Step #3: Leading Others to Lead

“A leader does not always need a podium; she can be sitting quietly on the edge of any chair, listening passionately and with commitment.”

Sometimes this looks like the conductor handing over the baton or the teaching role directly to a musician.

But always it looks like each of us taking responsibility for our own leadership role — even in  situations when we are not the leader, when we are the furthest thing from the leader, when no one encourages us to lead.  Even when we are “last chair.”

How do we do this? See Step #1.

And why? Because it feels. so. good.

Your individual, wordless, inner leadership context will energize the entire project, but, even if it didn’t, you’d want to do it anyway — for the glowing life that ensues.

“Today was exceptional in that I learned leadership is not a responsibility — nobody has to lead. It’s a gift, shining silver, that reminds people huddled nearby why each shimmering moment matters. It’s in the eyes, this voice, this swelling song that warms up from the toes and tingles with endless possibilitiies. Things change when you care enough to grab whatever you love and give it everything.”

~ Amanda Burr, one of Zander’s students at Walnut Hill School

Step #4:  The Big Question

The Zanders end Chapter 5 with this:

“How much greatness am I willing to grant people?”

They don’t elaborate other than to say “it makes all the difference — at every level — who it is we decide we are leading.” Check out my worksheet “Leading in a Universe of Possibility” for some questions to stimulate your own thinking on this.

So Here’s What I Want to Know:

  1. What leader have you known that powered you up? How did they do it?
  2. If you were to hand out White Sheets, whom would you solicit for ideas and opinions? On what?
  3. Have you ever led by handing over some of the leadership to others? How did you know this was the right thing to do?
  4. In the end, we are all for sure leading one thing — our own lives. How do you think Zander’s “silent conductor” model applies to ourselves?

I ardently hope you (yes, you!) will write in the Comment Box below because I’d love to hear your response to any/all of my questions (or anything else that you think about these ideas).

“On the Same Page”That's us!

This look at Chapter 5 of The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander is part of On the Same Page, a blogging book club. Each week, one of four professional coaches reflects on a chapter in our current book and offers up a custom-made tool and discussion questions. The book club schedule is available here.If you want to check out past and future chapters:

Kayce Hughlett,  Chapter 1, ‘It’s All Invented’ — click here.

Me, Chapter 2, “Stepping Into A Universe of Possibility” — is here.

Amy Steindler, Chapter 3, “Giving Yourself an ‘A” — is here.

Kanesha Baynard (our glorious founder!), Chapter 4, “Being a Contribution” — here.

Next week circles back to Kayce. Meanwhile, we hope you’ll play with us by adding your comments below. You don’t need to read the book to join in!

This entry was posted in Leadership, On the Same Page: "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund and Ben Zander, Worksheets. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Silent Conductor

  1. Sandi Shroads says:

    LOVED this Betsy, probably even more so because I’m a conductor myself. Yes, I realize that the article is about leadership, not just about conducting (love those metaphors)! However, I’m usually conducting WHILE playing the piano, so “conducting” in my case looks more like bouncing on the bench (good for the glutes), tossing my head in the general direction of whoever’s entrance it is, and occasionally actually raising my hands off the keyboard to give a cutoff. In other words – IT AIN’T PRETTY! 😉 However, it works really well because I work with VERY high caliber musicians who all know exactly what they’re doing, and this form of “hands-off” conducting also really empowers the players.

    Anyhoo, great writing as always, and I’m going to check out the other blogs by our fabulous classmates in this series. Sounds super fun! Hugs!

  2. Betsy says:

    Sandi, you sound like you got the whole em-powering leadership thing going on so beautifully. Just the respect you have for your fellow musicians — well that sums it up. Meanwhile… NOW I know why you look so gorgeous in that evening gown picture I saw the other day: piano bench bounding:) Thanks for reading. X

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