Real potential

Benjamin Zander, the motivational speaker and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, speaks about the power of possibility.

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Before Benjamin Zander's lecture starts, there are only a few characters sitting in the front row of the Intercontinental Hotel's makeshift lecture hall in Abu Dhabi. But he is not having any of it. "Why do people always sit at the back? To hide, sleep or judge," he says as he enters the room. "You think it's where the important people sit?" He sweeps his hand across the empty front row. "But let me tell you, I recently spoke to 187 of the Fortune 500 presidents and none of them sat in the front either."

Then and now, he duly shifted his audience forward. Although he is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Zander is also famous for his motivational lectures. The book The Art of Possibility, which he co-authored with his second wife, the therapist Rosamund Stone Zander, has stemmed from these lectures. It has been translated into 17 languages. Earlier this month, he arrived on Gulf soil for the first time to give a lecture to Aldar employees. Now he is back for the Leaders in Dubai conference, which begins tomorrow. Other speakers include Al Gore and Desmond Tutu.

After his two-and-a-half-hour lecture in Abu Dhabi, Zander, 70, said firmly: "I don't do jet lag. Jet lag is fretting, saying I shouldn't be awake at this time. It's a conversation in the head. I woke up today at 2.30am and instead of getting upset, I just got up." That morning, once the seating arrangements were to his liking, Zander started his lecture by telling his audience that his arrival in the region had a particular resonance for him because shortly before the creation of Israel in 1948, his Jewish father wrote a pamphlet entitled Is This the Way? in which he criticised the Zionist attitude toward the Palestinians. "My father was a deeply engaged friend of Arab people," Zander said.

Considering the diplomatic groundwork laid, Zander then launched into "mad professor" mode. His bushy eyebrows leapt up and down as he spoke. He made sweeping arm movements and bounced from stage to floor, walking and talking constantly. He singled out one employee whose birthday it was and instructed him to stand on a chair at the front of the hall while the twitching audience was made to stand and mumble a rendition of Happy Birthday. It's a staple Zander party trick during his lectures. The audience was made to sing it several times before it was deemed enthusiastic and heartfelt enough.

"It's all about possibility," Zander said, in clipped British tones (although recently attained American citizenship, he grew up in the English town of Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire). Possibility is the cornerstone of his motivational theory. For example, at the beginning of the year, he tells all his students at the New England Conservatory and the specialist arts school Walnut Hill that they already have an A grade for their work, providing they each pen him a letter explaining why. "The A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into," he writes in his book.

This, Zander says, is what the Nobel Committee did when it handed Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month. "They're wise, those Norwegians. They said: 'We know exactly what you want to do and we're going to encourage you.'" If, after receiving the A, students make a mistake, Zander subsequently explains, they must simply say "how fascinating" and learn from it. He warns his audiences against the downwards spiral: we can fall into a trap of worrying, comparing ourselves against each other and thinking that we're not good enough.

So far, so management guru - a term that Zander cannot stand. But entwined with his theory comes a deep love for classical music. During the lecture, he sits himself down at a piano and plays some Chopin. He later calls up a cellist to play a Bach movement and the lecture ends, as many of his do, as the audience sings Beethoven's Ode to Joy in German (the song sheets were tucked underneath our chairs).

Why, I ask later, does he link possibility with classical music? "You notice the room is... I wouldn't say unresponsive but not overly responsive," he says. "The thing that pushes it through is the music. It unlocks the emotions. Music is probably the most powerful force that has ever been devised to break down people's emotional resistance, and that's why we use it for soldiers going into war, for funerals, for weddings."

It is a medium that Zander came to know well at an early age. His father was a lawyer as well as a gifted musician and composer who played the viola and piano. Zander's mother, having spotted a similar talent in her son, posted off compositions he had written at age nine to Benjamin Britten, "who was the greatest composer in the world at that point", Zander says. Britten invited the family to stay at his house in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The family subsequently spent three summers there and Zander became a protege of Britten's assistant, Imogen Holst, the daughter of Gustav Holst.

"See, possibility is all about opening doors," Zander says. He devoted much of his life to music, training as a cellist, joining the New England Conservatory (where he has been conductor of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years) and forming the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in 1979. But his sunny outlook on life and his motivational aspirations didn't come until he was 45, when his second marriage fell apart. "You know The Importance of Being Earnest? Lady Bracknell says: 'To lose one parent is unfortunate, to lose two looks like carelessness.' It's the same with marriages."

The break-up proved to be a catalyst for Zander's way of thinking and outlook on life and the consequence was his possibility theory. "It's not the same as positive thinking," he says. "Because positive thinking is the opposite of the negative thinking, which is the downwards spiral." Zander has never had official training in the subject; it just stems, he says, from a "passionate desire" to spread his enthusiasm.

And in these choppy economic waters, are optimists more in demand than ever? "Unfortunately, I lost my diary on the aeroplane which is a catastrophe," he says. "It was so black. The October page was so black. There was literally no white. But I think people are coming around to realising the old ways of thinking are not going to work. The thing is to rethink from the ground up, and this possibility way is the best way of doing that. I'm busier than ever."

One person to have come into contact with Zander's way of doing things is President Obama. In 2008, two years after becoming an American citizen, Zander wanted to do something to support Obama's presidential campaign, which he felt was becoming "very monotonous". He tried to get in touch with Obama but had no luck. So instead he decided to fork out $15,000 (Dh55,000) to attend a fundraiser in Boston. The event also marked Obama's 47th birthday, and Harry Connick Jr, along with his 10-year-old daughter, Kate, had been recruited, to sing.

"Harry Connick Jr is a great singer, but he's not a conductor," Zander says. "So I stepped over the barrier, took the microphone and told the audience: 'Now, we're going to sing the best Happy Birthday and whether or not Barack Obama becomes president depends on how we sing tonight.' The place erupted. It was the wildest sound. Eight years of pent up fury," he says proudly. The performance must have had a lasting effect on Obama, because four months ago, two friends of Zander's attended the late Ted Kennedy's birthday in Washington and witnessed a similar rendition of the song. "At a certain point of the evening, the announcer said there was someone special to conduct Happy Birthday, and my friends said: 'Well, it must be Ben.' But it wasn't. It was Barack Obama, who came out and said: 'Now we're going to sing the most impassioned performance.' And he conducted it." Zander dissolves into giggles.

"Isn't that lovely? So possibility can go out in any direction. You never know." Zander's strongly held belief has led him to share stages with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela as well as spread the word in retirement homes and, more recently, a Pennsylvania prison. "One hundred and fifty prisoners and two of the best hours I've spent," he says. "Everybody has A, B, C, D, E and F grades in their personality, and in prison it's only the E and F that's let out. 'Here today,' I said to them, 'there are only As.' They clapped and clapped. It's just so moving, so wonderful."

But might Zander ever retire and slow down? "Never," he replies, horrified, while signing a copy of his book for me. "Why would I? I have a perfect life." "And everybody can have that?" "Everybody can," he says handing the book back. "For Sophia," says the first page, "who brings possibility to the world." Benjamin Zander has just given me an A. The Leaders in Dubai conference is tomorrow and until Thursday. Visit www.leadersindubai.comfor more information.