It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.
Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.
He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way.
"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it.
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”
The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.
“Ode to Joy”
Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.
He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.
“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”
We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING!
At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.
When the music stops
Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.
“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."
Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .
That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be.