First Lead Yourself Part 3 - What's an "A"?

Posted by Bruce Peters


Early in the first session of the Facilitative Leadership Program (FLP) I show a YouTube video of the composer Benjamin Zander. In the video, Zander describes his teaching philosophy.

Zander is an accomplished conductor who has also written The Art of Possibilities, a book about transforming your professional and personal life through changing the way you see the world. The Art of Possibilities has attained readership beyond musical circles and is known worldwide to business leaders. 

First Day Composition

During the first day of the new session for his new musical students – usually a class of several hundred—Zander asks his students to write him a letter from the perspective of their last day in class and must include two things. First, students must describe what they will do to earn their “A” and second, who they have become as a result of earning the “A.”

You can imagine the reaction of the students. Silence. Sort of like Jerry Harvey’s students’ reaction to his “Any questions?”  Eventually, a student in Zander's class asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind, "What's an "A"? 

Zander’s answer is, in some ways, even more provocative than Harvey’s. He says, “You decide! I only teach "A" students.”

Earning the FLP “A”

Many FLP sessions ago, I started asking my students to write me a letter similar to the one described by Zander. The reaction is much the same as that of Zander’s students experience. The students are stunned … almost dumbfounded by the question. Clearly, they’ve never in their student experience been asked to create their own version of their “A.”

Most often this leads to a conversation about their, indeed all of our, prior educational experience. Someone else (teacher, parent, friend, coach, boss, or another) has decided for them what the criteria are to earn an “A” or its equivalent. After a lifetime of being told what constitutes an “A,” my students discover how difficult it is to come up with their own criteria for success. In a nutshell, they are in the habit of having their “A” being determined for them.

What’s the consequence of that habit to them, you and me, in work and life?


As the instructor, reading each of these letters changes the nature of the student teacher relationship. It makes the relationship stronger, so learning can follow. These letters provide a profound insight into not only how my students think, but also what kind of work they feel is sufficient. With this information and insight, I can assist them more effectively along their path.

For the students, these letters lead to the understanding that an “A” as defined by others is essentially a limitation on what we can learn or who we will become.

One student observed, “All my life, I’ve ceded my own power and responsibility for my life to others.”

Another student was stymied by the request, so, I asked her to switch roles with me. “Can you be the teacher and define an “A” for me the student? ”Voila!  She could define an “A” when she changed her role.

How could changing roles provide that sort of breakthrough?

Stay tuned for a fourth post: The power of clarity in your role. Or better yet join us in an upcoming FLP to create and earn your “A” by first leading yourself.

First, Lead Yourself.

Learn more about  Facilitative Leadership (FLP)

Topics: FLP

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