Nature Versus Nurture

Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander and painter Rosamund Stone Zander suggest leadership-training exercises for restless executives who are not “born leaders.”

It is usually assumed that leadership is an inborn gift — like stature for a basketball player or perfect pitch for a musician. We call some people “born leaders.” And certainly there is a kind of leader — a charismatic, forceful, and persuasive individual — who is dominating by nature and who often rises to the top. But that top-down, right-thinking, hierarchical style of leadership may no longer be suitable for our new global society. A new concept of leadership, however, is emerging in our time, and it most certainly can be taught.


Consider the conductor of an orchestra. Though he is, in some eyes, an almost mythical figure, he must remember that he alone makes no sound. He derives power solely from his ability to make others powerful. This is a fine realization for any leader, politician, teacher, parent, or lover. Indeed, every relationship, from children playing in the sandbox to corporations considering a merger, is an opportunity for leadership, the art of awakening possibility in others.

This kind of leadership clearly can be taught, because it is a natural human capacity. And, as we have seen from the great transformational leaders — like Jesus, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela — it doesn’t take a loud voice or vast resources. Additionally, the charisma these leaders were reported to share was not personality based; it was an expression of the word’s original meaning: “grace” and “rejoice.” New leaders focus on open spaces where we are most trained to see limits and barriers. They have the discipline to speak the language of possibility against the tide of the prevailing conversation about what is impossible and what will never happen.

So the first part of leadership training is teaching people to think in a visionary way and asking important questions: What are you doing this for? What are you up to? What do you want to have happen here? We often ask children, What do you want to be when you grow up? Perhaps we might instead ask, What kind of a world do you want to live in? What would you like to contribute?

The second part is reminding leaders that they have the capacity to invent others in a way that brings all of those people’s faculties into play — like a conductor who recognizes the musicians in his orchestra as partners in realizing the dream. Teach leaders to pay close attention to how people receive what they have to say. Are the eyes of people around them shining? And remind leaders to factor themselves into the equation. If people’s eyes are not shining, they should ask themselves, Who am I being that people around me are not enlivened? And, thirdly, remind leaders that nothing they are doing is about them. It is all about the people whom they are leading.

Today’s leaders are dynamic, transforming, evolutionary — but they weren’t necessarily born that way. Their training in distinctions allows them to speak passionately and be open to the contributions of others while holding true to a project’s long trajectory. Can leadership be taught? Indeed it can!

Benjamin Zander ( has been the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic since its formation in 1978. He is also a teacher at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Rosamund Stone Zander ( is a well-reviewed landscape painter and the author of The Art of Possibility (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), a synthesis of her work on relationships and her husband’s leadership practices.