Why Authenticity Matters - Interview With Musical Conductor Charles Hazlewood

14 June 2017

Internationally-renowned conductor, motivational speaker and after dinner host, Charles Hazlewood has won hearts and minds around world with his ground-breaking musical projects. Moving audiences to laughter and occasionally tears, his presentations on leadership, trust, creativity and change have inspired leading organisations including Google, the US Federal Reserve, Mulberry and TED.

We caught up with Charles about his new speaking topic - 'Why Authenticity Matters' - in an interview. Read on!

Hi Charles! Your last TED talk was on trust, which has been a subject that you have addressed with leading corporations all over the world, what made you think of authenticity as a theme for a new TED talk?

For a while now I’ve been aware that trust is something that comes about as a result of authenticity. The Oxford dictionary reminds us that to be authentic you have to be seen as reliable, to have authority and be first hand, the real deal not a copy. To be authentic and engender trust, you have to be genuine, true to what you are and what you believe in and be consistently so. Authentic people and authentic companies whether they produce plays or pipelines, engender trust in their clients.

Authenticity is vital for the success of my work because often what I’m proposing hasn’t been done before. By being consistently authentic about what I stand for, excellence, inclusion and creativity, when I ask musicians, actors, theatres, funders or my colleagues to take part in something new and challenging they are more like to go with me. Authenticity engenders trust. And if people trust you you can go a long way together.

An internationally-renowned conductor

Can you give us an example?

The Paralympics is a good one. It was just blatantly obvious to me from the first, that to close the Paralympic ceremonies with no disabled musicians involved (when I knew for a fact there were many, many brilliant musicians with disability out there) would be a travesty, and an opportunity missed for a generation possibly. So I started the British Paraorchestra.

First I had to create a cracksquad of musicians that had never played together as individuals, or in such an explicitly ‘disabled’ group before, and persuade the powers that be in the Paralympic movement and broadcasters that it would be a success. It was a HUGE challenge, almost everyone said no, it won’t work or was wrong for a myriad of political and practical reasons. But I guess I didn’t take no for an answer, and in the end, enough people listened and took a punt on us and we did it. The first ever orchestra of musicians with disability played to an audience of millions in 2012 and the British Paraorchestra was launched. It told the world that disability is not a barrier to being a brilliant musician. I’m just so grateful we got the chance to communicate that to so many.

I think my own authenticity, hard won and a result of a many years of developing a self-awareness of what I stood for and what I did best, helped create the trust that was vital to launching into such uncharted waters successfully.

I know you’re a conductor and not a business guru, but why do you think authenticity matters in the business environment?

Well, Pepsi have recently given us a brilliant example of how inauthenticity is bad for business. I don’t know if you saw the recent ad that caused an unprecedented digital storm of protest. In it, a white model offers a policemen a Pepsi as if to bring reconciliation in what appears to be a black rights demonstration. The ad caused major offense, I believe, because it was pretending to be something it isn’t. Pepsi is a highly successful international brand, but a voice for social justice it isn’t, and by attempting to appropriate the values of a protest movement it was caught, as it were, stealing values that didn’t belong to them, and people really didn’t like that.

Charles is excited by the idea of encouraging authenticity

I wondered if the backlash to the Pepsi ad was particularly strong because we’re increasingly aware of being manipulated by the unscrupulous politicians or even companies that put out ‘fake’ stories to further their own agenda. It’s harder than ever now to establish what is ‘true’ or authentic, so perhaps in current times, authenticity has a higher value than ever before.

In a any competitive environment authenticity is vital. It means knowing who you are and walking the talk consistently. If you know who you are and what you do best and deliver ‘you’ consistently then you stand out. You become recognized for those values, those services, that quality of product, service, performance. You stand out for that individual ‘thing’ that defines you or your company.

It is vital too that the whole orchestra or company owns the same values. The delivery of this ‘sense of who we are and what we do’ has to be a shared enterprise or it simply won’t work. I can’t possibly get a team of creative people to deliver a brilliant performance if they’re not all 100% on board with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  I need each member to give their individual creative talent and their best, to stretch themselves to deliver excellence, they won’t do so unless the goals are shared between us. It’s human nature, so it’s as true in a business as in an arts environment.

Can you give us an example of an event where you presented on this theme, and how did it go?

In 2017, I presented on this theme at a TEDx in Istanbul. I chose to embed the theme in music, which, being a conductor, is the world I can authentically claim to know. I did a trawl of youtube clips of performances of Bizet’s Carmet (an opera very close to my heart) and found some brilliant examples of inauthenticity, singers visibly ‘pretending’ to be gypsies and contrasted it with examples of singers ‘being’ gypsies in my South African company’s film of the same that won the Berlin Film Festival first prize in 2010. The difference is so clear. You are moved and stimulated by an authentic performance and are left untouched and vaguely irritated (well I am anyway) by an inauthentic performance.

The audience was mainly Turkish speaking, it was a bit of leap to ask them to spot the difference between two performances of a French opera, but they seemed to get it.  I’m not an intellectual person really, I go with my senses and in a way, authenticity is a feeling or a sense of something that isn’t easily put into words, but is, I believe, instantly and universally recognizable.

So what’s the message of your talk?

That authenticity matters. What is it? It’s being true to yourself, whether that’s you as an individual or you as a body of people, and the values and vision you represent. It takes time to cultivate because you have to know what you’re about before you can communicate that to others. So self –awareness is key.

When I started out as a conductor, I was essentially mimicking other conductors that I admired, and very often I got fried by the orchestra, who are generally speaking, not a forgiving body of people! Fair enough, I wasn’t being authentic because I wasn’t being myself. I was trying on someone else’s clothes, and they could tell and didn’t let me get away with it, quite right.

So slowly successes and failures helped me I worked out who I was and what I am passionate about: excellence and inclusivity and the sparks that are created when these two are married. Those values have steered the work I have done over a 30 year career as a conductor. So I like to think, when I wanted to get the Paraorchestra off the ground, there was a consistency in my message and  a history of successfully breaking new ground, and therefore an authenticity to my proposals that made people said yes.

I’m excited by the idea of encouraging authenticity, yes because it scarce in these uncertain times, but also because finding your authentic identity as person, as a team, brings with it passion, sense of direction and, in a way, a freedom which is makes life, and work, more fun, both for yourself, and the people around you.

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