Skip to main content

Orchestral maneuvers in the boardroom

  • Story Highlights
  • Zander is a renowned conductor who has led the Boston Philharmonic for 30 years
  • His unique ideas about leadership have made him a popular speaker for major firms
  • He delivered the keynote speech at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos
  • He says innovation can only flourish when assumption and hierachy are ignored
  • Next Article in World »
By Paul Willis
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(CNN) -- For any onlookers it must have appeared a strange spectacle.

Zander says that one of the secrets to conducting is realizing that the musicians hold the power.

An orchestra conductor trying to convince a room full of some of the world's most powerful people that classical music is not only relevant to today's high pressure world, but that big business could learn a lot from understanding the dynamic of an orchestra.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the man himself -- Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra -- as he gave the final address at this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

"300 executives listening to Chopin, now that's out of the box thinking," he told the audience of politicians and business leaders.

It was indeed. But "out of the box" thinking is what Zander specializes in.

A renowned conductor who has created a reputation for himself as a highly sought after speaker for some of the world's biggest companies, the 69 year-old is living proof of his own contention that "the moment you say a firmly held assumption is out of the window then innovation has a chance to flower."

Don't Miss

The message that has made Zander so sought after in boardrooms across the globe has to do with leadership and empowerment, and is as radical as it is simple.

Innovation, he says, can only flourish when people are set free. For business this means an environment that allows individuals the freedom to think and express themselves without the constraints of hierarchy.

Naturally enough, Zander compares it to an orchestra, where the conductor runs the show, without making a noise.

"In my case, a major assumption that got overturned was that the orchestra conductor dominates the orchestra.

"Then I had this amazing breakthrough, this realization that the conductor doesn't make a sound. So he depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful.

"Now suddenly you're surrounded by powerful people and you're looking for their contribution."
Watch Benjamin Zander speak about innovation Video

According to Zander, the bond that exists between the conductor and his musicians -- which he describes in almost spiritual terms (the purpose of life, he says, is to surround yourself with "shining eyes") -- can be replicated in the workplace between managers and their staff.

As esoteric as it might sound, the message has resonated with a globalized business community aware that more and more innovation is taking place outside of the workspace, and often online.

He has given talks to hundreds of major companies and organizations including IBM, Microsoft and the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.

The message is catching on. At this year's WEF, "collaborative innovation" were the buzzwords for delegates.

Companies are keen to follow the trail blazed by Internet sites like Facebook and Wikipedia, where hierarchy and protectionism have been pushed aside as the sites' owners hand over power to their customers, drafting in users to create innovations on the product.

It is the kind of plural approach that Zander insists all companies need to adopt in an age where the dissemination of ideas has become almost instantaneous.

"People get addicted to safety," he says. "Every organization has started with an explosion of creativity, and the idea is to get back to that state of creativity."

Zander's own creative streak started earlier.

The son of a German Jew who fled the Nazis to come to England, he was a musical protege, composing scores at the age of nine and going on to learn at the feet of the renowned British composer Benjamin Britten.

His abilities eventually led him to the conductor's job in Boston -- a role he's occupied for nearly 30 years.

In spite of his success, he admits that he often found it hard to deal with people, and it was only through the advice and guidance of his wife Rosamund, a trained psychotherapist, that he managed to surmount these relationship difficulties.

He cites her as his greatest inspiration. Most of the ideas that have made him such a hot ticket as a motivational speaker have been developed together with her, and are crystallized in her book, "The Art of Possibility."

The book picks up the idea that we all carry within us infinite potential, and that it is only false assumptions about ourselves and our lives that hold us back.


Its message is nicely illustrated in a story that Zander is fond of repeating about two shoe salesmen who went to Africa to ply their trade in the early twentieth century and wired back progress reports to their respective bosses.

"One says, 'total disaster they don't wear shoes' and the other says, 'amazing opportunity, they don't have shoes yet'," he says enigmatically, his eyes shining. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print