Book Review: The Art of Possibility

Part of what we do at Process Design involves leadership coaching and we are always looking for new ideas about unlocking people’s potential. A friend had heard Benjamin Zander speak and recommended that we read his book, The Art of Possibility, co-written with his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, an executive coach and family systems therapist.

Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and a teacher at the New England Conservatory. Whereas many conductors take a dictatorial approach to the job (it is almost unheard of for a musician to question the Maestro), Zander is interested in a more collaborative approach to music. Because the Boston Philharmonic is a volunteer orchestra, Zander cannot use the same methods of intimidation that are often employed in the arts. Instead, Zander must engage his musicians if he wants them to bring their best to the stage. Through his unique approach to managing people, he has been able to create one of the best orchestras in the world.

Zander seems to subscribe to Goethe’s school of thought: “treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.” He talks about his approach at the Conservatory of granting each student an A at the beginning of the class. His view is: if you assume that people are capable of great things, they will live up to your expectations. Because his students are all “A students,” he expects more of them than he might from a group of B or C students. Students tend to push themselves harder under his tutelage than they might have if he had assumed they were less capable. Occasionally students or members of his orchestra miss the mark and his response is “How fascinating!” Instead of getting angry about being saddled with a group of poor performers, he assumes that there must be an underlying problem getting in the way of a good performance and can seek out root cause. This book challenges managers to think about their employees in a similar fashion. How much better might people perform if we simply assumed that they were top performers and treated them as such?

Zander tells the story of a violinist whose lack of enthusiasm during a rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth surprised him. His first instinct was that she simply had a bad attitude, but he quickly shifted his thinking. When he talked to her, she commented that his bowing markings were too fast to play. Since it would be unusual for a conductor to change a piece of music to suit a player, she assumed that she would be forced to play the piece in a way that did not optimize her abilities. Her lack of enthusiasm was not because she didn’t care how she played but rather because she deeply cared how she performed. Once she realized that Zander was willing to adjust the piece to better suit the violin, she gave one of the strongest performances of the evening. Says Zander: “The lesson I learned is that the player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again.” Zander starts with the premise that most people want to bring their best selves to the job but often grow frustrated when a lack of resources or a process problem prevents them from doing so. How often in business do we hire bright people with huge potential only to see them become disengaged after a few months on the job? How might things turn around if we, as leaders, asked our disgruntled employees “What can I do to make you more effective at your job?” rather than reprimanding them.

One of the most effective ways to motivate people is to make them feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to some greater purpose. Nowhere is this clearer than in managing an unpaid orchestra, where the only motivator is the promise of playing a role in creating beautiful music. Both authors speak to the importance of leaders setting the appropriate vision for their organizations. As Roz Zander puts it, “a vision releases us from the weight and confusion of local problems and concerns and allows us to see the clear line.” According to the Zanders, an effective vision articulates a possibility, fulfills a desire fundamental to humankind, and is not a function of any particular time. In other words, it’s broad, speaks to the heart and is timeless. When I was reading the book, I kept thinking of HOOPP’s vision to be the pension fund that “takes care of those [healthcare workers] who take good care of us.” Of course, businesses cannot be run in the ether and there need to be specific goals with concrete deliverables and dates. But, according to the Zanders, these goals should be viewed as a game to play under the umbrella of the vision: “Under a vision, goals are treated as markers thrown out to define the territory. If you miss the mark — “How fascinating!” Neither you nor the vision is compromised.” When setbacks happen in a company, leaders sometimes have the tendency to go to ground and get into intense problem solving mode, ignoring their employees and their customers. There is a need, in times of trouble, to solve problems but there is an even greater need to continue to reinforce the possibilities. Nobody gives their best to a sinking ship. The boys at RIM would be wise to take note.

There are parts of the book which threaten to deviate into the realm of Woo-Woo Magic. Business leaders who fancy themselves to be Rambo in Pinstripes might be put off by all the self-helpy talk of “speaking in possibility” and “central selves.” But there are a lot of interesting and practicable ideas within the pages of this book that have a very real application in the business world.

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