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The Art of Possibility – Book Review


In our practice, we believe in the unlimited potential of every leader, so the title of this book – “The Art of Possibility” –  really piqued my interest. It was recommended by a friend who is an adjunct faculty member at NYU. This book is one of the required readings of her graduate class, where the students are working towards their master’s degree in marketing.

The authors are a wife and husband team; Rosamund (“Roz”) has a private practice in family therapy, and Benjamin (“Ben”) is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Together they share twelve practices that create possibility – in ourselves, in life, and in leadership. Their stories and individual backgrounds – hers in human behavior and his in music – offer a fresh perspective to living life and leading in transformational ways. It’s the kind of book that got me up in morning because I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter.

Their twelve practices in possibility are:

  1. It’s all invented
  2. Stepping into a universe of possibility
  3. Giving an A
  4. Being a contribution
  5. Leading from any chair
  6. Rule number 6
  7. The way things are
  8. Giving way to passion
  9. Lighting a spark
  10. Being the board
  11. Creating frameworks for possibility
  12. Telling the WE story

Here’s a taste of three of my favorite practices:

Practice #1 – It’s All invented

What it’s all about: “Every story you tell is founded on a network of hidden assumptions. If you learn to notice and distinguish these stories, you will be able to break through the barriers of any box that contains unwanted conditions and create other conditions or narratives that support the life you envision for yourself and those around you.”   I am reminded that perceptions are limited by what we are programmed to receive – our own internal mental maps.

Key take-away for leaders: When faced with a challenge or dilemma, remember that it’s all invented. Ask yourself what assumptions you’re making that are contributing to this current situation, and if there was a way to reframe this assumption, what new possibilities would you get? (More about my experience with this one at end.)

Practice #3 – Giving an A

What it’s all about: Helping others confidently take risks and not allow fear of failure or limiting self-perceptions to hinder potential. Ben, the conductor, did an experiment: On the first day of class, he told 30 of his graduate students, all instrumentalists and singers, that they will get an A for the course he was teaching. The only requirement was that during the next two weeks, each student must write him a letter, dated the last day of the semester, and include a story of what will have happened to that student over the course of the semester that is in line with receiving an A. He requested that they place themselves in the future, looking back, and write in past tense, describing the person they’ve become – their attitude, feelings, new insights, and milestones achieved.

Take-away for leaders: As leaders, could we be limiting those we lead by our own judgments about their “short-comings”? Do our own beliefs (and lack thereof) about what they could achieve create a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if we gave them an A by believing and expecting performance at the highest level? How would that change the relationship? How would that change our own ways of leading? And how would our new beliefs encourage individuals to raise the bar on their own achievements, enabling them to perform at even bigger levels?

Practice #10 – Being the Board

What it’s all about: One makes the declaration to be the board on which the game of life is played. It’s a notion of responsibility; not accountability, fault, or blame. It’s about accepting the way things are, releasing resistance, and creating a new framework that gets us unstuck and closer to possibilities. Excerpt: “When you identify yourself as a single chess piece – and by analogy, as an individual in a particular role – you can only react to, complain about, or resist the moves that interrupted your plans. But if you name yourself as the board itself, you can turn all your attention to what you want to see happen, with none paid to what you need to win or fight or fix  … You as the board make room for all the moves, for the capture of the knight and the sacrifice of your bishop.”

Take-away for leaders: Think about these situations: you’re angry with a peer for not doing what they said there were going to do and it’s created problems for you; you blame someone else for your own misfortune because they didn’t hit a deadline; you feel regret for not giving performance feedback to a direct report sooner; you feel helpless to influence at higher levels of the organization; you’re feeling a sense of injustice when your budget is cut by 25 percent. This is all real, and it’s challenging to move forward and get out of that rut. It is times like these when you pull out this practice and imagine you are the board. Ask yourself, “How did this get on my board?” and “What breakdowns could I repair?”  Consider how this could offer you new possibilities on moving forward in a positive way. Remember, it’s not about blaming yourself; it’s about stepping back out of your role, and into the board … and you’re your next move.

On a personal note, I found the “it’s all invented” practice incredibly helpful in working through a predicament recently. I realized I was making many assumptions about another’s language and what this individual was communicating; those assumptions – and the meaning I was giving their language – created negative thoughts that were impacting my relationship. The practice of “it’s all invented” helped me to pause and think about what else could be going on; to ask myself, “What don’t I know?” And as it turns out, there was a lot I didn’t know and even more that I didn’t understand. I found myself with all sorts of new possibilities.

You will enjoy the nine other practices as well. I suggest you pick up the book and skim through the chapter titles. Pick and read one chapter that piques your interest. Consider how the practice could support you in being an even greater leader, with more possibilities. And keep leading!

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