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Review: Ben Zander – The Art of Possibility


Coals to Newcastle, ice to Eskimos… teaching Capetonians not to take themselves so seriously.  Hmmm, someone should have told Ben Zander that his Rule Number 6 is a slam dunk in this neck of the woods.  After all, this is ‘The City that Never Quite Wakes Up’.

But then again, maybe that is why a motivational speaker should be so welcome here.  Motivational speakers.  Hmmm – the cynical forcefield starts to hum as the mind pictures a manicured, coiffured person of suspiciously orange hue, fresh from a successful run on the Shopping Channel.

Happily enough, Ben Zander is cut from rather finer cloth.  He’s not even American (sorry Americans, but you know what I mean). Admittedly he lives in America, but that’s because, amongst other things, he happens to be the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

Keynote speaker no less than four times at the World Economic Forum, this extraordinary man is on a mission to inspire the world to embrace what he calls ’The Art of Possibility’.

He certainly inspired me.  Despite an unnerving amount of audience participation which would normally have me under the chair with agony, the cynic in me was undone by his boundless energy and humour as he leapt about the stage, pretending to be a 5 year old Jacqueline du Pré or demonstrating the freedom of expression of ‘one-buttock playing’. Life is all made up, he says, so let’s make it fun.

And what is this near-septuagenarian himself inspired by?  South Africa.  Every country has its problems, he says. “Canada is very cold.  England is very crowded.  And Australia is unbelievably boring.”

But South Africa he describes as “a vibrant, passionate, engaged and innovative country”.  It has enormous issues at stake and the world is watching.  But look how far it’s come in just a few years.  South Africans have shown that they are willing to grapple their own problems, to make mistakes and to learn from them. And Zander loves it.  One of the key lessons he expounds is, when you make a mistake, to throw your hands in the air and say “How fascinating!”  Try that next time you are on the golf course.

Of course the conductor of an orchestra is not the best person to talk about leadership.  Conducting as he himself confessed, is ‘one of the last bastions of totalitarianism in the civilised world’.  But the key to the role, as with any role in life, is to awaken the latent possibility in those around you – to make their eyes shine.

So I’m thrilled to think that I have a head start.  My mission is to bring people to Cape Town and I know that, once here, it will be very easy to make their eyes shine.  What?  You haven’t been yet?  “How fascinating!”

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