Ben Zander - World Business Forum 2011

Ben Zander talks to 4,000 people as if they’re children.

Zander serves as the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and is of renown as a guest conductor with orchestras around the world. He’s a Grammy-winning recording artist with the Boston orchestra and takes as much a part in creating the music as he does in teaching his community—and the world—how music works.

Zander was, by far, the most engaging presenter I have ever seen. When I say that he spoke to us as if we were children, I mean that with no degree of sarcasm. In fact, his first demonstration was to illustrate exactly how children learn music. He used the child’s model of understanding rhythm, structure, and the essential building blocks that lead to this concept he calls flow. Music, he says, and the connection to music, has to be in the body.

As it turns out, taking us back to this more childlike frame was a brilliant way to demonstrate what we need to be doing with our lives and our leadership, and to ask this essential question of ourselves: Are we connected with what we are doing in our lives right now?

Zander then introduced us to John. John was an attendee, just like I was, sitting a little further down toward the front of the hall, and it was John’s birthday. Zander proceeded to stand John on a chair in front of the crowded hall and conduct us in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate.

We were terrible. Zander told us so.

He made us take it again. He pushed us, driving us to give our very best to John, saying that this birthday was to be the very best day of John’s year, and that we were to commit to giving John that level of our attention and focus. And John, Zander prodded, was to drink in every ounce, to let it wash over him and be proud of the feeling.

Zander was a lunatic of the highest fashion. And yet, a surprise to many of us, he managed to bring out that commitment and we delivered one of the best damned renditions of “Happy Birthday” I’ve ever heard 4,000 executives muster.

A key lesson of Ben Zander for me is this: Our role as a leader is to demonstrate our commitment to people being as big and as great as they can be. His leadership asks not for following, rather for asking people to be actively engaged and connected in what they are doing. And his own commitment to that same connection inspires what he calls “Shining Eyes”—the physical manifestation of that connection. As a leader, Zander says it’s our job to bring that same shine to all our teams.

Zander’s leadership is not about celebrating his own wisdom and experience as a globally recognized conductor. It’s about what he is able to bring out in others. But developing this sort of relationship comes with great risks, some more manufactured than others. Zander cautions that our modern concepts of performance measurement often come at the expense of true leadership.

Measurement is, at it’s worst, about judgement. It’s about setting a bar above which is success and prosperity, and below which all else is failure. According to Zander, if you want people to succeed, you can’t be kicking off your team relationships from a position of judgement.

If transformational relationships can lead to success, fear of being managed operates in the face of that potential for success. Where Zander succeeds is in eliminating judgement, which in turn eliminates fear, and returns to productivity. Measurement maturity is leading us to be more inclusive about what we’re managing — including more ethereal concepts like happiness—in creating a more well-rounded picture of performance.

Measurement is a collaboration. Zander says he starts off every student-professor meeting by giving his students A’s all around. He presumes success from the outset, and works with his students so that they define why they are going to be successful. If they don’t deliver what they promised up front, they will know exactly why they are going to fail.

This practical, holistic approach to building sound measures hits home for me. It sheds the stigma of the one-size-fits-all methodologies and lets individuals shine as they need to shine, and departments and teams and organizations, too.