White Sheets and Granting Greatness


I finished a speech at a health care conference last week, took questions, then had time for one of my own. I asked:  “What will you take away, what will you think or do differently?”  A man raised his hand:  “On Monday, I’m going to ask my team what I can do to help them?”  His tone said it was a great a-ha.  His brilliance – like most brilliance – spoke to common sense, joyfully rediscovered.  Haven’t we all counseled a friend, child, or a girlfriend or boyfriend with the question-exclamation: “Well, why don’t you just ask them?”   Duh!

The next day I was delightedly reading The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life.  On page 73, Benjamin Zander, conductor and author, inserts this question as a chapter subtitle:  How much greatness are we willing to grant?  It’s a chapter in which he urges conductors – of musicians or others – to have the guts-and-humility to invite them to shape the performance and shape the conducting. 

I like the two attitudinal shifts implied.  First, it’s not the leader who is charged with greatness, not about the conductor who, ironically makes no music herself.   Zander recognizes that before him may be seated silent players who have studied the composer, genre, or the very piece he is conducting.  Or, they may hear in their section of the orchestra something he can’t hear from his podium.  At my staff room table, there are always people who have executed tactics better than I.  And people who could not just do their work but help me to lead.  But do I come with that mentality all the time?  No.  But, I’ll aspire to again.

Second, I love this idea of “granting greatness.”  If the leader posits greatness, expects it, looks for it, wants it, grant it then it’s 100 times more likely to appear.  I think our greatest failure as leaders and parents is coming into each engagement with too low expectations, too little belief, too much giving up on the greatness of every person at the table.  The leader’s first job is the job of faith: to believe in their greatness, even – no especially – when it’s not easy to do.

Zander uses “white sheets,” a blank page left on each musician’s music stand to elicit their insights on his conducting.  If you conduct a team, you could put “white sheets” at each place at the staff meeting table with the heading from my friend from health care:  “I’m going to ask my team what I can do to help them.”

It’s a way to show faith in their greatness, as well as your own, to

Lead with your best self!



  • Dan – Maestro Zander’s notion of “white sheets” to gather feedback from the orchestra is such a good idea. The old notion of “it’s lonely at the top” is true; too many times the leader gets little (or no) feedback from those s/he is leading. Why? Because they don’t intentionally seek out that feedback. I often recommend to clients (particularly CEOs) that they ask their people to do three things: (1) list three things you wish I would do more of; (2) list three things you wish I would do less of; and (3) name one thing I do that drives you crazy. When subordinates provide that information and we compile it for the CEO, it is amazing how frequently the individual lists are in substantial agreement.

    In my own business and in life, I try to remember the following statement by Donald Keough, former president of Coca-Cola: “What separates those who achieve from those who do not is in direct proportion to one’s ability to ask for help.”

    And thanks, Dan, for showing up in my inbox every Monday morning!


  • Dan,

    I live in a small community, very far north in Michigan. In the community, I have been granted an opportunity I would likely never be permitted in a more populated area — I have been allowed to direct plays with a local theater group — The Calumet Players (www.cplayers.org). This spring, I directed “Anatomy of a Murder.” In this play, as in each play I have directed, I worked with several actors with decades more stage experience than I have as either actor or director, and with others with more energy and insight than I have. It felt natural to ask my cast for input on blocking, character development, timing, etc. So I did.

    Whoa! Stop the presses! News flash…I had uncorked the genie’s bottle, and received more than my three wishes ever could have requested. A flood of ideas, some good, some not-so-good, and some absolutely wonderful spilled forth, and the task of moving the movie in my mind to the blank page of the stage became a journey of joy. I took a chance on their greatness and I am now a believer — I was inundated with their verbal white sheets.

    The play was a grand success. As patrons congratulated the director (me) for the production, I told them it was really the actors who deserved the credit. Interestingly, the more I directed the credit to the actors, the more the patrons congratulated me. Apparently, the more you share your success with your team, the more there is to share. One simple question, “How can I help you make this production better?” — opened the door to success. I doubt I shall close it again.

    Great article Dan.


  • Hey Dan,

    Deviating from my ‘norm’ here today. Back in my days as a framing carpentry contractor and general contractor, I asked the guys whom worked for me to be vocal. By that, I suggested that as they went about their job tasks, to think of ways that might bring speed and a higher level of efficiency (without compromising safety) to the process. I asked this of them for several reasons, one of importance to me was that even though we engaged in a ‘physical’ activity, I knew that sharp minds are the core of successful actions. But of importance to them, I stated, if you can come up with a better way to do a particular task, I’m all ears, as it is important for me to strengthen the bottom line/profit margin, in turn, giving me a better opportunitity to share the wealth with you!
    Today, I sing in a wonderful choir at a somewhat large Baptist church. It is a growing church (600-700 members strong), which I’m grateful for. There are around 60 members in our choir. My pastor is also the choir director. In his younger days, he thoughtfully rejected becoming one of the original Statler Brothers, as his focus was on ministry. Needless to say, he is an awesome guitar player, and music director. We are looked upon as being one of the best choirs in all of Virginia, doing gigs on occasion at a statewide assemblage. Our director serves in the same capacity of which you spoke…..allowing and encouraging input from each and every one of us. More importantly, he sets the bar very high for all of us; we come prepared to give our very best.

    Thanks for the Monday morning blog today.

    NO political discourse this week……except for…..
    My one posting never ‘cleared’ under moderation status last week…..?

  • Dan,
    Hi! Your message this morning is so right on! Living up north in a small community brings lots of opportunities for “doing” and for “learning.” Asking “how can I help” has been an amazingly fun and wonderful learning for me, and has resulted in being involved in many experiences I would have never dreamed of. Asking my spouse “how can I help” can bring some wonderful insights too. Living this strange and unexplored world of retirement and aging – – – well, unexplored for me – – – means there are many new things to learn and do. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights. I look forward to hearing from you each Monday morning.

  • positing this whole “can do” thing in the realm of muzik is the real deal… thankee 4 sharing the perspective…life is …
    “what you make it”… gratefully, michael

  • When I was a supervisor I gave a first day talk to new employees. About the first thing I said was, “You are allowed to think on this job.” If you can find a better way of doing something tell me about it and do it. All I want is that we do not interrupt someone else’s work with a better idea. Once employees believed I was serious this helped a lot, so that I had much less supervising to do.

    This kind of approach works when you know you have mature people. I have been through enough situations where people plot or group together in cliques to take power from the group, that it is sometimes hard to take all the positive approach ideas to heart. I always think of the times when I have encountered the power seekers, and the malicious, whether in work or politics.

    My thoughts on the people I supervise is that I have to take care of them, give them what will make them suceed, be efficient, and safe, because these are the people who will make me look good, or look bad. If they know you are taking care of them, many persons will respond in kind, but not all. Some will do all they can to take your job away.

  • I do not always comment but I do enjoy your email!

    The negative direction in my country is often too frustrating to even comment!

    Your information is enlightening and more positive than several of my emails!

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