Hot seat: Benjamin Zander

Orchestral conductor Benjamin Zander puts down his baton

Hot seat, The Knowledge

Tell us about the talk you’re giving at the Leaders in Dubai Business Forum this week.
I teach a new kind of leadership. The old style is dominating, hierarchical and male. That has served humanity for the past 75,000 years, but it doesn’t work in this new world. Thanks to the internet, every organisation has more power from below. So I’ve developed a different model that doesn’t rely on a dominant figure.

Isn’t that going to put you out of your job as a conductor?
That’s the thing: people think the conductor is in charge of the orchestra, but he cannot make a sound. His power depends on his ability to make other people powerful. It’s a total reversal of the normal way of thinking.

But if you lose the hierarchy…
Rather than a hierarchy, think of it in terms of roles. My role is to conduct, and that means I have to set the tempo; the leader of the second violins has to lead the second violins, and so on. You can’t have an orchestra without a conductor, but you also can’t have an orchestra without the second violins. The conductor doesn’t have to dominate everybody. This way we’re all humans working together; it gets rid of fear, tension, pressure and competition, and those things are not good for people’s lives.

How has this idea gone down with others?
This message has caused a sensation in the world wherever I go. I was just in a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania delivering the same message and I got 150 hugs at the end of it from the prisoners.

What did you say to them?
I explained that I give all my orchestra students an ‘A’ before the year begins and ask them to write me a letter, dated for the following year, that begins, ‘Dear Mr Zander, I got my A because…’ It describes who they will have become by the following May to reflect this extraordinary grade. I tell them to write without the voice in their head telling them they can’t do it. So I spent two hours talking to the prisoners as As, rather than the Fs that everybody else has talked to them as. Their gratitude was overwhelming. My talk is about breaking out of the prisons of the mind – prisons of anxiety, of competition, of the fear of failure – and coming to a place where people are fully expressed and engaged. This is two hours of the most intense transformational thinking some people will have ever experienced in their lives.

It seems to be very much about your state of mind…
There are two mental worlds: the world of the downward spiral and the world of radiating possibility. The classic case of radiating possibility is my father. He came to England during WWII with four children and a wife to support, having lost eight members of his family in the Holocaust. He found himself in a UK internment camp with 2,000 other men, all of whom were miserable and staring at the barbed wire. So he took all the intelligent people in the camp and started a university, with 40 classes running regularly. There wasn’t a single book, they were just people sharing experiences. This is how we should look at the recession: a glorious opportunity. The world, for the first time, is joined as one by the computer and by international travel, and the opportunities for new thinking are huge. The next 30 years will be the most exciting in history. Let’s make sure we have a conversation about who we want to be.

Benjamin Zander speaks at The Leaders in Dubai Business Forum on October 27; for more info see

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