Recently, I read a wonderful post by fellow leadership blogger Gwyn Teatro where she wrote about what Jazz can teach leaders about the value of improvisation in their organizations. Being a big fan of this musical genre (one of my daughters’ drawings found on my site is of the blue cat mascot from our city’s famous Jazz festival), her piece really resonated with me and it also got me thinking about some of the other lessons that Jazz offers to the field of leadership.
Granted, for some Jazz can sound like a mass of contradictions, especially in those sections where the various musicians play their own variations/motifs. And yet, if we focus less on the separate elements and instead listen to the piece as a whole, there’s a definite connectedness that can be heard despite these individual expressions.
I think this is where the Jazz analogy plays well in terms of today’s business world. For the last few decades, we’ve been used to the classical orchestra model of leadership – with a single conductor at the helm directing all the players to create and repeat the same message over and over. However, what many businesses are beginning to discover now is that it’s no longer feasible or desirable to maintain such rigidity of structure; that what’s needed instead is a greater fluidity and movement where the message can change and ebb and flow.
With this in mind, here are three lessons Jazz offers on how to keep your leadership in step with today’s ever-changing world:
1. Establish what’s the key message behind your vision
Jazz must first of all tell a story that anyone can understand. – Thelonious Monk
When Jazz musicians play a given piece from their songbook, you can often hear subtle variations between performances as they will introduce new elements or improvisations to how the piece is played. Often these variations are introduced in those moments where they play off the cuff, outside of the main melody that listeners use to identify the particular piece.
For Jazz musicians, these variations are important for the development of their musical style, as these measures allow them to experiment in order to figure out what version or approach really captures the mood or ideas they want to share through their music.
And yet despite these variations, the various members of the musical group still end up playing in sync and not being thrown off by these changes that are introduced by others in their group. The reason why they are able to do this is because the band has a clear idea of what’s the key message or idea they want to impart through this piece.
It’s obvious these days that businesses need to be more adaptive, responding quicker to reactions in the market and in their surroundings. At the same time, though, it’s critical that organizations and their leadership not lose sight of what’s the key purpose or goal behind their collective efforts.
For leaders, it’s not enough to simply define what their vision is for their organization; it’s also important that they identify the key message within that vision. This will allow leaders to encourage changes which are not simply reactive to market conditions, but ones that will also allow them to stay on track with their organization’s objectives.
2. Communicate regularly and consistently with your team
It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz. – Oscar Peterson
Even if Jazz musicians know what style they want to use in their performance of a given piece, there’s still a wide range that’s left open to how they choose individually to interpret and improvise playing their part within the performance of that piece.
If you listen to some of the early performances of some of the well-known Jazz trios, you can hear how their individual performances are rather subdued and not very energetic, mainly because there is that lack of understanding as to how far they can go in their improvisation of the piece. It’s only after they’ve played together for several years that we can hear each musician really putting something of themselves into the piece.
Through their practices and discussions, the band’s leader was not only able to demonstrate how he wanted them to interpret the piece, but he was also able to appreciate what his band mates would require in order to add their own unique expressions/ideas into the final version. Over time, having this understanding of what style the band leader liked to take in their performances allowed the other band players to anticipate how they would approach a given piece, giving them a better feel of which route to take in their improvisations.
In terms of leadership, one thing that is often written about is the need for greater communication and listening between leaders and their employees. What we can learn from Jazz is how communicating a consistent vision or message to your team will enable them to implement measures or changes without having to wait for orders from above as they understand the objectives their organization wants to accomplish.
This will also help leaders to focus more on providing information to their employees on how their efforts contribute to the organization’s objectives; of how their role fits into the bigger picture and aligns with those of others in their team or organization, much like the roles of the various musicians in the performance of a particular piece.
3. Let others take center stage to shine, even if their viewpoint is different from yours
Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing. – Wynton Marsalis
When one listens to Jazz pieces performed by a trio or quartet, there is often sections during the piece where each musician improvises a solo or plays the lead with the accompaniment of one of the other players. These segments not only allow the individual players to have an opportunity to play a leading role in the performance, but they also allow the musicians to feature their own unique contributions to the overall piece.
Although each of these segments is distinctive and reflects little of the piece’s main melody, combined together they still create an integrated song that flows well from one element to the next. Naturally, this is in large part due to the approach I spoke of in the first point about how such jazz pieces are derived.
More importantly, though, is how this shows the ability of jazz musicians to work together to take diverging approaches to the same musical idea and fuse them together in such a way that it still remains true to the original vision they had for that particular piece.
A key lesson to being an effective leader is understanding that one doesn’t always have to be in charge in order to be in command. In practical terms, this means providing employees with opportunities to take the lead on various projects or meetings, much like how Jazz musicians take turns playing their solo improvisations. Such measures will encourage employees to use their talents not just to help the organization reach its objectives, but to develop an understanding of which approaches work best and which ones don’t.
Naturally, by providing such opportunities to employees, leaders are opening their team and organization to different approaches and viewpoints. Although many leaders might prefer fostering consensus or uniformity within the team, the reality is that creating an environment where employees can offer diverging viewpoints or perspectives will allow for a greater number of possibilities to be presented. As Jazz musicians can attest, the ability to consider diverse viewpoints/approaches ultimately leads to a better outcome than they might have otherwise achieved.
I’d like to end this piece with another quote from one of my favourite Jazz artists, pianist Oscar Peterson:
Some people try to get very philosophical and cerebral about what they’re trying to say with Jazz. You don’t need any prologues, you just play. If you have something to say of any worth then people will listen to you.
In many ways, this idea also applies to the role of being a leader, in that it’s not simply your position in your organization that will determine how much you’ll be able to channel the efforts of those under your stewardship toward your shared goals. Instead, it comes down to the vision you have for your organization, how you share that message with your team, and the role you give your employees to play in making that vision a reality.
What other leadership lessons do you think Jazz has to offer us? And what other ideas do the lessons mention above inspire in you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.