Awaken Possibility

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

Last fall I came across a two year old TED talk from Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, entitled "On Music and Passion". I'd heard good things about The Art of Possibility, the book Zander wrote some time ago with his wife, Rosamund. Passion and possibility are favorite subjects of mine, so I watched.

I grew up in a house full of music. Classical was one element of a repertoire that included pop, jazz, blues, broadway, bluegrass, folk, choral, and opera. As a result, my musical tastes run the gamut. Still, while I enjoy classical, these days I listen to it rarely, go to see it performed even less frequently than that.

Zander's talk, in the end, wasn't really about classical music. It was about broader leadership lessons he's learned from conducting. And it was 18 minutes of pure, unadulterated enthusiasm--for classical music, yes, but in truth for inspiration, for life, for people.

Zander's infectious energy sparked my curiosity about the role of the conductor. So two weeks ago when Charlie Rose spoke with Simon Rattle, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and last week when Tavis Smiley profiled Gustavo Dudamel, the 29 year old Venezuelan conductor of the LA Philharmonic (pictured above), I watched again.

United by a shared generosity of spirit and a deep devotion to music and to people, the three men have very different temperaments. Zander is an exuberant showman, Rattle, a sensitive, brooding romantic, and Dudamel, a remarkable blend of the two. Together the three speak of and demonstrate in action one of the fundamental truths of leadership: great leaders awaken possibility in others.

As Zander notes, this is, at its core, about making other people powerful. Rattle speaks of it as one of the uncanny gifts of extraordinary conductors, describing it as an ability to allow people to play. And he speaks of the imprint that a conductor leaves on an orchestra and the pleasure of the experience of guest conducting one treated with love and respect--in other words, awake to its possibility.

And Smiley, whose profile of Dudamel showcases his work with children and his commitment to ensuring that music education stays in the public schools, spends time speaking with Adam Hart, a 12 year old timpanist in LA's Youth Orchestra (YOLA) (founded by Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic's dynamic President, Deborah Borda). Under Dudamel's passionate tutelage, Hart is in the throes of awakening to his own possibility--so fun to see.

Ultimately, Zander asks the ringer question, be it for a conductor, a leader of an organization or community, or even for each of us as individuals: when the orchestra isn't playing at its best, who am I being, that my players' eyes are not shining?

As conductors, these three practice leadership in what, to some, might look like an advantageous environment: the score is given, they can stand in only one place, expressive emotion on the podium is encouraged. Really, it's not that simple, and as Rattle says, conductors can--and do--stop orchestras from playing. No matter the environment, awakening possibility in others is truly an act of magic--and passion--unfolding uniquely, leader-by-leader.

Watch Benjamin Zander's talk below. Simon Rattle's conversation with Charlie Rose is here. Tavis Smiley's profile of Gustavo Dudamel is here, and an excerpt from his conversation with Adam Hart is here.

Next time I'm in LA, I hope my visit coincides with an LA Philharmonic concert with Dudamel conducting. If so, I'll be front and center.

Photo: Chris Christodoulou