As long as I can remember, people have bemoaned a lack of leadership, of visionaries who can either inspire others to get involved for the greater good or do what’s necessary in the face of inertia or opposition. But, what if the opposite were true? What if leaders are everywhere but we choose not to see, acknowledge or empower them?
I’m in my second read through of The Art of Possibility. Co-author Benjamin Zander, a conductor, shares the anecdote of a trip to Cuba with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra to perform with a peer ensemble. The two groups sat in pairs, according to their instruments. When the Cuban conductor tried to rehearse his piece, the American musicians had trouble following the rhythm. Frustrated, the Cuban conductor wanted to cancel the performance. Since Mr. Zander did not accept that as a possibility, he told each Cuban player to teach their stand partners the piece and told his students to accept their counterparts’ leadership. With the authority granted to “lead from any chair”, the Cuban teenagers eagerly brought the Americans up to speed. Had black and white thinking prevailed (that only the conductor could lead), there would have been no music.
At my Master’s swim class, we have a coach. He invents workouts and scribbles them on a white board. Sometimes he gives pointers but mostly he keeps a relaxed eye on the group. The first few times I barely made it through half the posted workout, and it seemed impossible I ever would. Then I developed a sinus infection, missed a few sessions and wasn’t motivated to return. Many weeks later, inspired by a friend’s blog post on her Master’s class, I decided to try again. That’s when E. introduced herself to me in the locker room. I immediately qualified my presence, saying I wasn’t a competitive swimmer. She shrugged off my comment; she cared more that I had shown up than about my skill. Once in the pool, she set the tone and pace, inspiring everyone to stay focused. As I huffed and puffed like a drowning dragon behind a kick-board, she shouted encouragement from a few lanes over. I kicked a bit faster. The next time, E. wasn’t there, the group energy was muted and I didn’t push myself as hard. Last week, as we were changing out of our suits, she suggested that we start each section of the workout at the same time, to build camaraderie and make it more fun. She’ll have the coach modify distances for the slower swimmers to keep us synchronized. In creating non-traditional conditions to help everyone thrive, she’s more of a leader than the coach. In a black and white world, one might say that she “shouldn’t” have to do his job, or he’s not behaving like a “real” coach. In the world of possibility, these distinctions become moot.
The New York Times just published What Can Mississippi Learn from Iran?, about meeting rural health care challenges. The article, while sobering, offers the possibility that, if we’re willing to look beyond borders and ideological blinders to see how other nations manage similar challenges, we might find solutions. For some Americans, the idea of acknowledging Iran (or other countries) as a leader, even on this one issue, is anathema. To be fair, each of us has constructed boxes of beliefs and assumptions that can trap us rather than guide or protect us. Maybe we exclude parts of ourselves from the box and don’t allow them to speak or lead. And sometimes it’s hard to either expand our boxes or bust out of them altogether. At other times, life collapses or crushes our box and, ready or not, we’re thrust into the unfamiliar which, if we’re open to it, can be the land of possibility.
With the world changing so rapidly, and many major economies struggling, some believe the current global “box” no longer serves. The authors of The Misfit Economy, to be released next year by Simon & Schuster, posit that the world’s misfits — drug traffickers, pirates, terrorists and inner city gangs — have something offer to formal markets when it comes to innovation and resilience. I eagerly await the book and in the meantime I’ll imagine a world in which outcasts are leaders, too, and crisply dressed CEOs squat at the feet of slum dwellers to pick their brains. Talk about possibility!