Leon Botstein

President of Bard College

Leon Botstein has been the president of Bard College since 1975, where he is also the Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities. Botstein’s 1997 book Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture is the basis for Bard’s acclaimed public high school early college reforms in Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, New York, and Washington D.C. Botstein has guided Bard’s innovative liberal arts BA program in New York state prisons, now expanding into a national network. He is the chancellor of the Open Society University Network (OSUN).

Botstein is music director and principal conductor of The Orchestra Now (TŌN) and the American Symphony Orchestra, artistic co-director of the Bard Music Festival, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, where he served as Music Director. Botstein is editor of The Musical Quarterly and writes on music and culture.

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

My typical day starts around 8 am and ends around 1 am. It’s varied, filled with meetings, writing, teaching, and rehearsals. There is no routine, and it’s continuous, which I find helpful.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I bring ideas to life by motivating other people, gathering good people together, encouraging dialogue and letting them know the best result is their idea.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The quality of young musicians is ever improving. Not only does this show there’s a growing interest in classical music among young people, it allows us, as conductors and music directors, to do more things better than in the past. There used to five great orchestras in the US – now there are 35.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

The ability to nap.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would encourage my younger self to be more confident and less self-critical and influenced by the opinions of others.

Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you on?

Everybody has the ability to learn and to improve their ability to navigate the world. Education is universally productive.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

To engage actively in music, whether you’re a casual listener or an amateur or professional musician. The universality of music defines humanity.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

Take a nap.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

Take risks and pursue ideas that cut against conventional wisdom, don’t copy others, and then persuade other people to follow you. You have to lead with ideas, and they have to be good and persuasive, even if they appear to others to be different or unusual.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I don’t believe in proprietary ideas. I believe in sharing ideas. One of my best ideas was the Bard High School Early College, and I hope others will use this idea to help improve high schools and increase access to college.

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Word processing software, which in my case is Microsoft word. It has made writing and editing easier and has made me more productive as a writer.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast you’ve gotten a ton of value from and why?

I do not have a favorite book, nor do I have a favorite piece of music. I read empathetically and am hostile to comparisons. I’m always most interested in what I’m reading or working on at the time.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

I enjoyed the French series Nicholas Le Floch, a beautifully made crime drama that takes place in 18th-Century Paris.

Key learnings

  • Listen to everyone, even if you can anticipate what they will say. You learn something from every conversation.
  • Don’t lose your sense of risk-taking and curiosity.
  • Motivate other people to engage with ideas and issues you feel are important