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Entrepreneur Profile: Gilbert Kaplan

I do almost all my consulting for entrepreneurs and start-ups. All my clients at some point or another invariably ask me if I think their business will fly. The answer is usually no, but it’s hard to tell them that their business won’t fly because they don’t have the character to make it fly. It’s their idea, their love, and their dream. But they’re the wrong person to make this happen. I rarely meet the entrepreneur who has it; in those cases, the business idea and plan are often moot.

It’s easy to criticize. So I’m going devote many, many posts to the entrepreneurs who “have it,” and try as hard as I can to explain what it is. I don’t know if this will help the many readers of this blog, but it’s worth a try.

It’s unusual to think of conducting a major symphony orchestra as entrepreneurship. But since entrepreneurship is about breaking the rules, saying “I will do it this way” when everyone else says, “it can’t be done that way,” I’ll damn well break the rules.

Not that Gilbert Kaplan isn’t an entrepreneur. After all, he started The Institutional Investor in the 1960’s and, by the end of the decade, he was a multi-millionaire feted by the greatest financiers all over the world.

What has captured everyone’s attention, though, is that this economist and businessman has become the foremost expert on Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. Even though he’s not a conductor by trade, yesterday the New York Philharmonic chose him, over all the biggest names in the music industry, to conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony on the one hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s own premiere of the symphony in New York.

If you want to know what the “it” is that I look for in entrepreneurs, this is a tale worth knowing.

Let’s put this in some perspective. Sure, Kaplan made his millions as an entrepreneur. But making millions is a dime a dozen, really, compared to conducting a major symphony orchestra. Simply getting in front of a major symphonic orchestra means that you’re one in a million and, in the profession itself, the top one percent of the top one percent. It’s an achievement far greater than actually stuffing your bank account with ones followed by zeros.

And let me take it a bit further. I know a bit about this symphony (in a previous life, I thought I’d become a composer — I actually had one work performed by a symphony orchestra and a string quartet performed in a concert, but I really sucked at composing). The Mahler symphonies are not just any symphonies. They are enormously complex with many parts and nearly infinite possibilities in interpreting each part. These symphonies, especially the second, are very easy to lose control of to the point where you have a mush of sound (Leonard Bernstein’s later recordings of these symphonies on Deutsche Gramophon are mountains of mush and nonsense as if the members of the orchestra were all playing in separate rooms and some hapless sound engineer just pasted the whole thing together). When they are conducted well, one is simply amazed at the clarity and complexity of the things. But you rarely hear that.

For example, my favorite recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is Klaus Tennstedt’s. Because he recorded it using an orchestra half the size that’s called for in the score, you can really hear the parts. Since my stereo doesn’t do airplane engine loud, you don’t miss all those extra players that sat this one out. Instead you hear the clarity.

That’s what Kaplan has managed to achieve. He not only knows the score better than anyone else, each time you hear him do the score, you hear things you never heard before. “Clarity” is the word critics use most often. As a result, many people, including myself, think of his versions of the Second as the best in the last fifty years.

Do you want to know what kind of “character” it requires to take an entrepreneurial project to success? Here’s what I find in Kaplan’s story:

a.) It starts with a genuine, long-term passion. Kaplan heard the symphony in 1965, was overwhelmed by it, and set about mastering the score. It was a passion he was able to maintain for 43 years (although he’s conducted all over the world, all he conducts is Mahler’s Second). In my new book, “The Million Dollar Employee,” I call this “sustainable passion” and I see it in people as diverse as Rich Burlew and Warren Buffett.

b.) The second is what William Butler Yeats called “the fascination of the difficult.” You thought I was going to say confidence or the wherewithal to meet a challenge, but I don’t think either are correct. Kaplan certainly had both in abundance, but as a non-musician, he stepped into the ring by choosing one of the most difficult musical scores in existence. There are certainly easy ways to money, but the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve worked with have taken on the most difficult challenges. And it was the difficulty that sustained the effort. I see “sustainable passion” and “the fascination of the difficult” as two sides of the same coin.

Although they may seem synonymous, “challenging” and “difficult” are two entirely different concepts. A high wall can be challenging. A maze is both challenging and difficult. A “challenge” is overcome; “difficult” is lived in and mastered.

Because Kaplan took on the difficult, he took a mastery approach to the problem. His goal was to conduct the symphony. To do that, he had to learn conducting (2 years with a private tutor), seek out other masters, and study the score. I have seen more than my share of entrepreneurs, particularly in entertainment, skip the mastery part and just try to jump to Park Place and Boardwalk on a single roll of the dice. While you have to admire their cajones, too often they end up on Bankrupt instead.

In a recent consult, I had an entrepreneur blow up at me, “I don’t like details. All my life, whenever I have to take care of a detail, it really pisses me off. Details are the one thing I really hate.” I knew then that this venture would go nowhere. By the way, Kaplan has arrived at the pinnacle of conducting precisely because he loves details.

Again, that’s the difference between “challenging” and “difficult.” Difficulty requires mastery. Mastery requires a plan, stick-to-itiveness, and sustainable passion and, in turn, produces sustainable passion. Challenging looks for an exit strategy at the nearest possible date.

Now, I could also have stayed on the surface and focused on Kaplan’s “goal-driven” character: he wanted to conduct the symphony and spent decades getting himself to that point. So “goal-driven” seems to be an entrepreneurial quality, as well, no? Not really. Because what we learn from Kaplan is that goals have to be worthy of the achieving. That added component, “worthiness,” goes beyond the objectivity of a “goal” into the moral world of a “purpose.” Well, defining “purpose” is a much more elusive prey than defining “goals,” because of that heavy-handed moral element. I take an assets view of character and morals rather than a values perspective; it seems to me that the central assets of “purpose” include sustainable passion, fascination with the difficult, and mastery. “Purpose” produces an idea and an ideal of a future self and is always cobbled together from bits and pieces of the world around us.

c.) The third component I see is humility. At some point, Gilbert Kaplan went out and listened to what people had to say to him. In point of fact, he’s become the world’s expert on the symphony because his goal was to play what was in the score, a fundamental act of humility. Kaplan is a man of great intellect and ambition who was willing to be tutored by any and all.

In The Million Dollar Employee, I talk about character in terms of character assets rather than values. I don’t see humility as a value, like honesty or respect. I don’t see it as an “end” of character, but rather an asset for building character. Humility at its most fundamental is an act of extraordinary pragmatism, an ability to correctly size up the web of interdependencies between ourselves and others and use those interdependencies to achieve an end. (Then, of course, there’s the humility which is an excuse for failure, but we won’t delve into that here.) Seen as a form of pragmatism rather than as a value, that means it’s entirely possible for someone to be pragmatically humble but personally proud. It’s also possible for someone to be personally humble but pragmatically proud. (It’s an old saw that people who don’t think they’re good enough also think they’re better than the rest of us. Why? Because they won’t listen to us when we tell them they are good enough.) Again, I see “mastery” and “humility” as two sides of the same coin — they both produce and feed off of each other. No matter how “expert” Kaplan becomes, he has still tied himself to a humble but difficult goal: playing what Mahler intended in the score.

Don’t be fooled by the structure of this essay which implies that these are divisible “parts” of character. “Well, I think I qualify for one and two but I have no need whatsoever for humility,” someone might say, proving, of course, that they need humility. But that’s not how it works. It’s an interdependent system: sustainable passion and the fascination of the difficult live and feed off of one another; the fascination of the difficult and mastery live and feed off of one another; mastery and humility live and feed off of one another. No, it’s not a virtuous cycle, but instead a string of dependencies, like the parts of a business.

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2 Responses to “Entrepreneur Profile: Gilbert Kaplan”

  1. Peter J. Williams-Schaer says:

    Hello, Thanks for your sensitive, and thoroughly clear, succint thought on Gilbert Kaplan and his ‘Adventure’ with Mahler – in particular the Second Symphony.
    Unfortuantely ther is too much jealousy out ther. Mr. Kaplan is at least doing something worthwhile with his money – as against many other rich people out there. The present Financial Crisis is the result of greed on many sides, and particularly obvious in the actions an attitudes of many rich, many Bank and Financial Executives. (But the Man in the Street, is not wothout blame). To attack Mr. Kaplan now, and use the Crisis against him, is a bit late in theday. He has been ‘travelling’ his Mahler Road quite a bit longer.
    What is good is that he is, and will help to ‘tidy-up’ many of the faslifications in Mahler’s scores. I am a Founder Mmeber of the Bruckner Society of America, and well remember an article in ‘Chord and Discord’ where I think it was the late Antal Dorati had said that the Archives of the Gustav Mahler Ges. in Vienna were a shambles. (I was a member of that Society, and had some correspondence with the late Dr. Erwin Ratz). Also I have corresponded with the great Mahler Biographer, Henri-Louis de la Grange – and met him personally at the Mahler Symposium in London, some years ago.
    Since many years I have followed Mahler research, have many different recordings of his works. Have been priveleged to listen, and watch, Live Conductors such as Jascha Horenstein (7th.), Norman del Mar (9th.) . Das Lied von der Erde, under Sir Simon Rattle in Birmingham.
    My listening has lead me down ‘Memory Lane’, from which has come the idea, that in his 5th. Symphony there might be a small sensation hidden. And I would like to share that with Mr. Kaplan personally.
    Apparently I am ‘to small a fish’ to be corresponded with by the Mahler Ges. in Vienna, or with some other societies, to which I have written, for help in verifying, or rejecting my ‘theory’ or ‘minor sensation’, should it turn out to be true.
    Therefore I ask you Sir, how can I contact Mr. Kaplan, directly and personally ? Perhaps you can help me. I would be most grateful for any information, or connection, you can help me with.
    Yours Sincerely,
    Peter (J. Williams-Schaer)

  2. Peter J. Williams-Schaer says:

    Sorry for my typing errors. Peter


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