Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz
No two ‘regular days’ in any organization are truly the same. As leaders, it’s part of our job description to expect the unexpected—resignations, lost clients, critical errors, even situations we never imagined possible.
Organizations are living things, and as with all living things, change is inherent. When I think about the past month in my role, it’s not the ‘business-as-usual’ that stands out in my memory. What does stand out are the moments I’ve had to adapt, take charge, or find a new way when an old one was no longer serving its purpose.
I listen to jazz every now and again for background music while working or cooking at home. The other day, it struck me how jazz can teach us a lot about leadership.
If you’ve ever listened to a live rendition of a classic jazz tune, the live version is never a reproduction of the original. In jazz, the live band goes in knowing their performance today will be a re-invention of their last. Improv at its best.
Leadership is not about reproducing the same successful day ad infinitum. It’s about approaching each day ready to turn the unexpected into opportunities for growth.
Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz
1. Some of the Best Work is Improvised
Every jazz band is intimately familiar with the value of improvisation. The genre leaves a lot of room for creative expression on the fly. If a bandmate’s string snaps or a note comes out flat, the jazz musician’s approach is to roll with it and let it become a source of inspiration.
In the workplace, we’ve all encountered our fair share of snapped strings and flat notes. There are times when we’re surprised by the comments or actions of a client, a teammate, or another stakeholder.
We need to be expecting these moments. When we’re secure in our values, know our intent and the intent of our teams, and know where we’re headed, we put ourselves in a good position to roll with the punches and choose the right response off-the-cuff.
2. Listen Continuously
In most cases, a difficult situation presents warning signs. Perhaps there’s a person on the team with a history of overlooking important details. Or another teammate who seems irritable and frustrated every time you see them.
In jazz, it is essential that the band is tuned in. Everyone must listen to each other to keep the rhythm, listen for cues, build and resolve melodies.
Our teams are no different. In our roles, listening is more important than speaking. We must hone in, not just on what people are saying, but into what their actions are telling us. We must check in frequently and ask questions that allow us to hear even more.
By doing so, we’re also fostering a culture of listening. We can’t be in every room, but our corporate culture can. When everyone is looking out for one another, we can all react in time to tame chaos and strengthen our relationships.
Are you ready to apply these leadership lessons from the legends of jazz? Then download your complimentary copy of our insights article, ‘Collaboration and Team Effectiveness’. This quick, powerful read offers actionable tips to boost the output of your team.
3. If There’s No Box, You Can’t Think Outside of It
This anecdote is one of my favorite examples of mastering the rules before breaking them.
While recording his 1959 album, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis was heavily inspired by classical composers like Schoenberg and Bartok who challenged the norms of musical arrangement. When he arrived at the studio one day, he presented the quintet with a 10-bar arrangement, a departure from the standard twelve or eight bars. The song, now known as “Blue in Green”, was the result of the band rising to the occasion without any prior rehearsal.
In business, we can’t push the envelope if there’s no envelope on the table. When we outline the parameters of a challenge, something incredible happens. The human mind has an incredible capacity for problem-solving and creativity when presented with a set of limitations.
When a challenge is felt but not defined, teams can fall victim to “analysis paralysis” and stick to the status quo.
4. Leadership Means Giving Others Center-Stage, Too
The bandleader in any jazz band is never the only one with a solo. There are drum solos, trumpet solos, bass solos..everyone gets a solo at some point. The bandleader understands that they’re leading the group, but they’re still only playing one instrument.
We hire smart, capable, qualified people to do the things we cannot do ourselves, even if we had the time. What good is it to have these people around if we can’t let them lead with their own talents?
Leading a group means carrying the responsibility of guiding the direction of the team and keeping efforts on-course. If we aren’t creating an environment where our people are contributing to their fullest potential, we’re overstepping our role and limiting our teams.
This is especially true if we lead at the C-Suite level. We must trust that the people we’ve empowered to be leaders contribute something unique and valuable to the process. If we micromanage, we convey erroneously that we have nothing to learn from those who lead on our behalf.
5. There Can Be No Innovation Without Experimentation
Jazz legend Duke Ellington played in many bands, released countless records, and won a long list of accolades before his death in 1974. As an extraordinarily prolific recording artist, not all of his music was successful.
Ellington and his orchestra were constantly pushing the limits of the genre, which was constantly being reinvented, to stay on the leading edge of the ‘new sound’ of the day.
Some things didn’t work. Some records were rejected by critics. Yet, these are not the works Ellington and his orchestra are remembered for.
We’re all familiar with failure. It’s natural to feel let down when a product, or person, fails to launch. Consider that your failures are always prototypes of a successful model. We’re well-served to divert our train of thought from “how could this happen” to “why did this happen”, and course-correct.
At the heart of each of these lessons, there is a common theme. To the jazz band, the roles are only that. What matters is what the group can accomplish when everyone’s efforts are aligned.
If you’re ready to play a different tune with your leadership strategy, I invite you to get in touch with my team and I at East Tenth Group today.