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Arts: Leading from the front

Conducting takes up half Benjamin Zander's life. The rest is spent inspiring politicians, moguls, children. Anyone.
It's an early morning seminar at the London Business School and the 60 students on the Sloane Fellowship MBA programme - a course designed for high-achievers, CEOs and decision-makers looking to go that notch higher - are singing "Happy Birthday". Pretty badly, too. It is a monotonous, half-throated sound and the birthday boy, a soberly suited student called Palat Achuthan, is standing on a chair at the front of a lecture hall, looking faintly embarrassed.

Benjamin Zander, the seminar leader, orchestral conductor and organiser of this unorthodox spectacle, is unimpressed. "You are the future leaders of the western world! Is that the best you can do? It's not `to you'; it's `to YOU!'" - and Zander throws his arms towards Palat. The class launches another salvo. "No, don't attack him! Do it with tenderness and love!"

And again the song is repeated, Zander gesturing to the object of the song and accentuating the phrases with conductorly gestures. Within minutes, the once-tepid song has been transformed into a rousing chorus, sung with palpable feeling. Palat looks flushed and also very pleased. "This," says Zander, "is something he won't forget for a while."

Nor, indeed, will anyone else in the room. After 10 minutes, Zander has pulled these future (in Tom Wolfe's words) masters of the universe together into a group which acts effectively in concert. To emphasise his point, Zander rounds off the three-hour seminar by leading the entire class in "an incredibly loud and expressive performance of the `Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth" sung, of course, in German.

It's no mean feat and yet it's one that Zander has been repeating weekly for the last decade, with groups as various as the US Army, NASA, blue chip corporations (last month in Arizona, he zapped 4,000 Pizza Hut managers in one sitting) and schools, including Eastlea, an East End comprehensive in one of London's most deprived areas.

Zander has been rightly described as one of the most able communicators since Leonard Bernstein. The day after the performance described above, he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, attended by, among others, Tony Blair. Tonight he's back in London to conduct Mahler at the Royal Festival Hall, and tomorrow he'll speak to Lewisham Council's 800-strong housing department.

Now in his 60th year, the English-born Zander lives at a tempo many half his age would find exhausting, and at a breathtaking level of engagement. He began his career as a cellist before switching to conducting. He has made a significant mark as both educator - at the New England Conservatory, where he has taught for 35 years - and as conductor with the Boston Philharmonic, with a series of landmark recordings of Beethoven and Stravinsky. "Beethoven is, bless his heart, capable of speaking to everyone," he says, and to prove it, he always leads his audiences in the "Ode to Joy" - including the Eastlea children, "who had never seen a grand piano, let alone an orchestra". His eyes shine. "The `Ode to Joy' is not the European anthem," he says, "but a song for the possibility of the human being."

Conducting is a profession which has, Zander jokes, "a dictatorial image. It's the last bastion of totalitarianism." But one of its crucial skills is leadership, which is why the business community has taken Zander to their global bosom. Ten years ago, he was invited, in his capacity as professor of music at the New England Conservatory in Boston, to address the Young Presidents' Association.

"What I did was bring them to an orchestra rehearsal, and invite them to sit with the players. As I conducted, I noticed certain things that were similar between a conductor and any other kind of leader. A conductor does everything just before it happens: it's too late if you act with it. I realised that what I was doing must look strange, so I stopped to explain. It's really no use for a CEO to be with the company, I said by way of analogy; he must be ahead of it."

From these beginnings, Zander developed, in tandem with his family-therapist wife Rosamund ("We separated 14 years ago, but she's a close friend and a brilliant, original thinker"), a new theory of leadership. It goes like this: leaders are people with vision, and our new global society needs new types of leaders, ones who can - in one of Zander's catchphrases - "think outside the box", who can make distinctions, challenge their assumptions. Contribution, rather than success, is the essence, he says, adding that to think otherwise is to be caught in a downward spiral where you are forever measuring performance against another indicator. Success in that sense, he says, doesn't matter; it's all invented and means nothing.

His ideas, as much as his performance, are cited as life-changing encounters with an immediate and lasting accessibility. Vareria Veseina, a London- based investment banker, spoke of how "Zander's sense of contribution, or mission, really generates enthusiasm. People do discover different meanings in what he says; it depends on your own experiences."

"Music is just a metaphor for other experiences," Zander says, "and it's incredibly powerful in its ability to break the barriers that keep us separate and unable to express our humanity. It's something that I have access to."

Zander is clearly on to something. Even the Industrial Society has recently reported, in a new publication on leadership, that command management is no longer appropriate for modern times: what is needed now is a more people-orientated approach. It seems that Zander has anticipated them. In the Eighties, when firms wanted to develop leadership qualities among workers, they sent them over military assault courses. The message was blunt: business was an arena in which only the toughest survived.

Does Zander's popularity indicate the development of a softer, more caring society? Now even the RSC offers workshops to non-actors, in order to bring out ways of expression.

"It is precisely that," replies Zander. "The new global society calls out for a different person. We used to think, if I can beat my neighbour, I'll be better off. We now know that's not true. When we read about the disastrous Japanese economy, we realise that it will have an impact on us. It's now a global society, so it's more like a symphony orchestra than a football game.

"In an orchestra, the secret is to allow everybody's voice to be heard, for the violas and the trombones to be equally expressive and not drown the other out: if that happens, all you get is chaos."

Benjamin Zander conducts the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, London, SE1 in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and Johann Strauss's `Emperor Waltz' tonight at 7.30pm (0171-960 4242), with a pre-concert talk (RFH, 6pm; admission free with concert ticket)