Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

3 Steps To Help Get Your Leadership Groove On

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.

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22 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , | November 2, 2010 by |

22 Comments on

3 Steps To Help Get Your Leadership Groove On

  1. On November 2nd, 2010 at 11:33 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Barbara. I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. I can tell you I really enjoyed merging these two passions of mine and showing what we can learn from both of them. Thanks for sharing this piece on Twitter.

  2. On November 2nd, 2010 at 1:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jen; I appreciate that. I agree with you that vision is a word that's at risk of being tuned out by both employees and leaders because of overuse, which is problematic as it really is important to a leader's ability to help direct their team's efforts in a meaningful fashion. I think part of the problem is that visions by their nature have to be rather large in scale and concept, since they need to take into account whole departments and fields of expertise. This can make such statements difficult for employees to grasp because it can fall so far outside of their sphere of influence that they begin to see little value in it.

    That's why I wanted to draw the point about finding that key message you want to share with your team within that vision because this allows leaders to scale it down to something that their team members can not only appreciate in terms of their participation and involvement, but it allows them to be more proactive in taking the initiative to affect changes/improvements that fit within this message. Giving your employees that freedom of movement will certainly help transform any notions of a vision from being some vague, lofty concept into something they can see they play a critical role in bringing to fruition.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this piece, Jen. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  3. On November 2nd, 2010 at 1:25 PM Twitter Trackbacks on Topsy.com said:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Barbara Ling, Geoff Snyder, Ted Coine, and others. Barabara Ling said: Brilliant! 3 Steps To Help Get Your Leadership Groove On http://tinyurl.com/29s78mp by @TanveerNaseer [...]

  4. On November 2nd, 2010 at 6:27 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Tanveer, I love where you have taken this metaphor, particularly as it pertains to the need for constant and consistent communication among team (band) members for the purpose of strengthening understanding of each other and learning the parameters within which they can effectively improvise.

    Thank you for making reference to my own post and for deepening my thinking about it.

    My recent post Breaking the Rules

  5. On November 2nd, 2010 at 8:30 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Gwyn. And thank you for inspiring me to think about the connections I see between Jazz and leadership.

    When I started mapping out what ideas I wanted to bridge between these two disciplines, I knew that constant and consistent communication had to be one of them as this is one attribute many leaders tend to overlook in how they manage their teams. It's important that we understand that communication is not simply about keeping your team 'in the loop'; it's about empowering them with the ideas you have of what you want to accomplish so that they can go out and accomplish that without having to sit and wait for a green light for the C-suite. Such conversations also allow leaders to vary their message from providing specific directives of what direction they want their team to take to providing them with the context for how their efforts fit into the larger picture.

    Much as Jazz musicians shift their approach depending on where they are in a particular piece, so too do leaders have to understand how to walk this line of maintaining that consistency so that, like the other musicians in a Jazz group, your employees won't have any issues keeping up in playing along.

    Thanks again, Gwyn, for sharing your thoughts on this. Glad to hear this got you thinking more about the connections you drew between Jazz and leadership.

  6. On November 2nd, 2010 at 9:00 PM @MeghanMBiro said:

    Hello Tanveer. This is an incredible share. Of course, I'm a jazz fan for starts. I thoroughly enjoyed this post for countless reasons. Just a very rich and textured approach to this topic. My jazz takeaway today = Juxtapositions (aka diversity/different personalities) and active listening hold the key for leaders that want to create a diverse and enthusiastic workplace culture. There may be one "vision" that guides but empowering employees and workplace community members to share their own unique interpretations should not to be overlooked. Thank you for this valuable insight.

    PS: I'm walking away feeling a tad more groovy.

  7. On November 2nd, 2010 at 10:36 PM Jim Matorin said:


    Your blog really resonated for me. One time I was with a client who asked me how are we going to get there, referencing a new product launch. I replied: " I have no idea, I am like a jazz musician, The tune is in my head and I will figure it out as we go along." Your piece reminds me of "My Favorite Things" by John Coltrane – three recordings over time, three variations off of one tune. I wish more leaders would be flexible and perform like jazz musicians, but unfortunately, thanks to the short-term performance measurements that guide them they have become more rigid in their approach, but for me would benefit acting more flexible and performing like a jazz musician. Improvisation would lead to more innovation vs. doing it the same old thing, reading from a sheet of music. I also love the analogy of letting people step forward as Coltrane did with his first recording of My Favorite Things.


  8. On November 2nd, 2010 at 10:41 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Meghan; I appreciate the kind words.

    I agree with you that the goal in leadership shouldn't be to create uniformity, but instead learn how to use the diverging perspectives, ideas and approaches to their advantage in creating something more encompassing and inclusive than what they'd generate on their own. A good example of this in practice would be an organization's efforts at innovation. Unquestionably, encouraging conformity among your employees is not going to allow your organization to truly come up with something innovative. It's only through allowing the representation of different ideas or perspectives that other possibilities can be revealed and explored, and no doubt leading to a better chance to create something novel and unique, as opposed to something safe and formulaic.

    Thanks again, Meghan, for sharing your thoughts on this piece. Glad to hear that reading this piece has you feeling a bit more 'groovy'.

  9. On November 3rd, 2010 at 11:06 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Jimmy, first off I love that you brought Coltrane's renditions of "My Favorite Things" into this discussion. His experimentation in playing this well-known song in different ways is a great example of how one can introduce variations/unique approaches to a process while still remaining aligned with the original concept. It's a perfect example of how leaders can encourage disruptive thinking without worrying about losing the original context or vision they had for their organization.

    I agree with you that a large part of the problem today is that businesses and their leaders are too narrow in their focus, of prioritizing short-term benefits/outcomes at the expense of anticipating long-term challenges. This is why I love your inclusion of Coltrane's performance of "My Favorite Things" into this discussion. Although he made an album recording of this song, he didn't view this as being a completed task, but instead as a work that could benefit from the introduction of new ideas or concepts to refine it and perhaps bring it closer to that vision he had for the piece when he first chose to play it.

    Thanks again Jimmy for your contribution to this discussion. I'm delighted to hear that this piece resonated with you as it has with so many others.

  10. On November 5th, 2010 at 9:53 AM Mark Loschiavo said:

    Thanks for the post from a kindred soul. I too have found music to be an excellent metaphor. As such I share the following: Entrepreneurial Leadership: What's Music Got to Do with It http://tinyurl.com/2dcjnc4, From Blues to Prosperity: The Entrepreneur Effect http://firstservestrategies.com/wordpress/article… Entrepreneurial Rhythms: Building a Scalable Business http://firstservestrategies.com/wordpress/article….

    I hope you enjoy
    My recent post You’ve Got Some Swagger There

  11. On November 5th, 2010 at 10:27 AM Drew Marshall said:

    Great post, Tanveer. It reminds me of the great book by the former CEO of Herman Miller, Max DePree – also called Leadership Jazz. I highly recommend it.

  12. On November 5th, 2010 at 10:58 AM Bob McCarty said:

    I stumbled upon this blog and am so glad I did…as a business guy who has had to 'explain away' my undergraduate degree (Jazz Studies and Piano Performance) for years, finally somebody gets it! I wish I would have had the foresight 25 years ago when I was starting out that you've included here. I will be forwarding this to my network with a little "see? this is why!"

  13. On November 5th, 2010 at 10:59 AM Hal Portner said:

    I too stumbled upon your insightful and well crafted blog, Tanveer. Bravo!
    I am an educator and musician, and your words were (drum roll) ‘bitchin!

    I am co-authoring a book about teacher leaders and how the nominal school leader (the Principal) need to create, nourish and sustain the culture and climate for those teacher leaders to emerge and flourish. Your blog is so appropriate. May I have your permission to quote it profusely? Of course I would cite its source. If it is ok, please so indicate in a brief email since publishers don’t want to be sued for plagiarism. Thanks.

  14. On November 5th, 2010 at 11:27 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mark for sharing these pieces. Looking forward to reading them, perhaps with some Coltrane, Peterson or Monk playing in the background.

  15. On November 5th, 2010 at 11:30 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Drew; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. I have heard of DePree's book "Leadership Jazz". It's currently on my reading list. Thanks for pointing it out and for your comment, Drew. Appreciate it.

  16. On November 5th, 2010 at 12:36 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Bob; I'm glad to hear this piece reinforces the lessons you've learned from studying Jazz for your undergraduate degree, if not also helping you share a little 'see, told ya so!' moment with your network.

  17. On November 5th, 2010 at 12:48 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Hal; it's nice to hear my piece was "bitchin!". I'm flattered to hear you'd like to quote my piece in your book. I'll send you an email to follow up on this.

  18. On November 5th, 2010 at 1:24 PM Andrew Doyle said:

    Great piece – and it is a great counterbalance to the normal business baseball analogies.

  19. On November 5th, 2010 at 3:58 PM @edjvt said:

    Reading this post while I was listening to Miles Davis was totally cool.

    Great comparison, I really like the way you put together the concepts of leadership and music through jazz music (which I really love). If you let me I would add a few things that I consider leaders could learn from jazz music:

    1) As jazz musicians leaders also should feel and keep the rhythm in their work. I mean leaders should be able to react on situations that are unexpected (feel the rhythm) without losing perspective and making the best effort to achieve objectives even in chaotic situations(keep the rhythm)
    2) Like in jazz music classic and new tendencies could live together and help each other. Leaders should apply old and new concepts of leadership to make things happen.
    3) A solo could be fun for some minutes but it won't work for long time. A leader always gonna need support from its team.

    Hope you have a great weekend Tanveer

  20. On November 5th, 2010 at 9:11 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Andrew; I've been known to throw around a couple of non-sports analogies in regards to improving how we manage our teams or organizations and I plan on doing more in the future. Thanks again for your comment.

  21. On November 5th, 2010 at 9:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thank you, Edgard, for adding those excellent points to this discussion. This is one of the reasons why I think Jazz is such a great model for finding inspiration about leadership, as there are so many aspects of this musical genre, of how to truly succeed in creating a compelling and engaging piece, that mirror the same approaches needed when taking the role of a leader within a group or organization.

    Glad to hear that this piece reads well with Miles playing in the background. Guess it wouldn't surprise many to hear that I was playing some of my Jazz favourites to serve as inspiration when writing this piece. Thanks again, Edgard for the wonderful comment. Wishing you a great weekend as well.

  22. On March 25th, 2012 at 9:27 AM Siang said:

    Impressive blog with good writing. I think is also a need to share with everyone this helpful and useful steps to get their leadership grove on. I am so happy to read your article. Tanveer, your presentation is marvelous! Keep on posting…

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