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Lessons on Leadership from Jazz

I have been pondering for some time that my preferred leadership and working style aligns closely with how Jazz music is performed. This is in clear contrast with other musical styles.

First some background. From 2000 to 2008 I worked for four large consulting firms - Ernst & Young Consulting, then Capgemini (initially directly, then through their privately owned NZ affiliate), then Hewlett-Packard. I note that the transition between each was an acquisition, rather than my changing employer!

Each of these firms placed a heavy emphasis on methodology. We had a clearly defined way of approaching each type of project we undertook. It was part of the Project Manager's role to ensure compliance with the methodology. So, when I became a Project Manager, that became part of my job.

I accept that the idea behind methodological approaches is sound. There is often value in repeating what has worked in the past on new projects that are the same or similar. The aim is to increase the certainty of achieving the desired result (effectiveness), whilst also reducing the cost of getting there (efficiency).

However, I became increasingly frustrated, particularly during my years at HP. It seemed to me that the emphasis on methodology stifled creativity. It also restricted the ability of star performers to perform at their best. This was one of the key reasons why I left HP last year and embarked on a portfolio career utilising my skills in a variety of capacities.

Recently Michael Hyatt wrote an article '8 Things Leaders Can Learn from Symphony Conductors'. I was struck by the similarity between large firm consulting using a highly methodological approach, and what Michael observes in comparing leadership with orchestral conducting.

Michael's article has prompted me to contrast his thoughts with my preferred leadership style. I prefer to use my preferred leadership style in my professional life as a project manager, and in other contexts too. For example, it describes how I think local churches should usually be led. I have used my influence as a leader in my local church to try and see us build a leadership culture along these lines.

So what is my preferred leadership style? To develop a highly passionate and competent team, point them in the general direction of where we should go, let the team work out the detail of how we are going to get there and how we will interact with each other, carefully manage the transitions along the way, and make sure we check progress from time to time.

Do you see the parallels with Jazz? If not, maybe this table contrasting leadership and orchestral conducting (by Michael Hyatt) with Jazz will help:

Michael Hyatt's comparison of Orchestra Conductors and Leadership generally

My contrasting this with Jazz

The conductor starts with a great score. Conductors have a plan. They start with a musical score and a clear idea of how it should sound. Only then do they attempt to recreate in real time their musical 'vision'.

In Jazz the plan is much less defined. Unlike an orchestral 'score' a jazz 'chart' does not specify each and every note, it's pitch, it's length, it's volume, it's tone, it's speed, etc. Rather, a jazz chart outlines the general theme of the piece, and specifically the transitions from one stage to another. The musicians know where they are going, and the transitions along the way, but not necessarily the specifics of each and every moment (until they get there). They innovate along the way.

The conductor recruits the very best players. Great conductors attract great players. Mediocre conductors attract mediocre players. The very best players want to work for the very best conductors. Like attracts like.

In Jazz selection of the team is critical. Each musician's skills must be up to the challenge of following the selected jazz chart. Just as importantly they must also be able to knit together as a team. Because Jazz ensembles tend to be smaller than orchestras, these factors are much more important for jazz.

In an orchestra however, the individual skill of each player is much less important than the ability of the conductor to bring them together. This is less obvious in a world class orchestra where, almost by definition, each player is probably world class in their own right. But think of a school orchestra under a skilled and passionate conductor - they will be able to produce a musical performance far beyond their individual capabilities.

The conductor is visible, so that everyone can see him. The conductor stands on a platform, so that every single member of the orchestra can see him. This is the only way the orchestra can stay in alignment, with each player starting and stopping at the appropriate time.

This is much less the case with jazz than with orchestral forms of music because the jazz leader is typically also one of the musicians. It is usually only in big band jazz that you will see a visibly identifiable 'conductor' from the very start of the piece. Even in big band jazz the leader is usually one of the musicians and often slips quietly back into the group to perform a musician role during a piece.

The conductor leads with his heart. Great conductors are swept up in the music. They are passionate. They don't just play with their head; they also play with their heart. You can read it on their face. You can sense it in their movement. They are fully present and 'playing full out'.

Passion is important in both orchestral and jazz music.  But in jazz it also has a part to play in determining how the musicians improvise during the piece.

It is no accident that jazz is closely related to soul music, and that soul music is called 'soul'. Likewise with 'blues' style jazz - it is very emotive and passionate music.

The conductor delegates and focuses on what only he can do. The conductor doesn't do everything. He doesn't sell the tickets. He doesn't participate (usually) in the preliminaries. He doesn't even make sure that the orchestra is in tune. He stays off stage until it is time for him to do what only he can do - lead.

In jazz it is much more about what each of the musicians can do, whilst staying together as a group. It is quite common during a jazz piece for each musician to take the lead and perform a solo.

The conductor is aware of his gestures and their impact. A conductor can't afford to make an unintentional gesture. Everything means something. The flick of the wrist, the raising of an eyebrow, and the closing of the eyes all have meaning. A good conductor can't afford to be careless with his public demeanor.

In contrast, in jazz the leader's movements are typically much more subtle, and not always easily discernable except to those closely attuned to them. Also, not every gesture by a jazz leader is about leadership. Some movements will be about them enjoying the music itself, or simply displaying their passion for the music. Often, only their fellow musicians will be able to discern which gestures relate to leadership of the performance, and which do not.

The conductor keeps his back to the audience. Conductors are aware of the audience but their focus is on the the players and their performance. The only time the conductor stops to acknowledge the audience is before the playing begins and after it is finished. Other than that, he is focused on delivering an outstanding performance.

This is not typical in jazz, because the conductor role is not usually a standalone role. Even in big band jazz - which does have a conductor - the leader would only have their back to the audience while conducting, and even then not always - it is quite common to conduct a big band from side on.

The conductor shares the spotlight. When the concert is over, and the audience is clapping, the conductor turns to the audience and takes a bow. A good conductor immediately turns to the orchestra and invites them to stand and bow as well. He shares the glory with his colleagues, realizing that without them, the music would not be possible.

This is even more pronounced in jazz - and occurs throughout the music, not just at the end of the piece. I have even seen lighting used to emphasise which musician is currently carrying the lead.

This article is the initial articulation of my thinking, but is by no means my final word on it. I intend to develop these thoughts further. They have already developed during discussions with Michael Sampson (who read an early draft), my friend and pastor Paul Gardner (who has cross-posted it on his blog) and my leadership coaching colleague Colin Sander.

The image is of Shamarr Allen - one of my favourite modern jazz artists - performing at JazzFest in New Orleans earlier this year.

What are your thoughts on this? Please share them with me. Either by commenting on this post, or by contacting me directly.

Reader Comments (1)

Great headline. If your cookie has a bite-sized action and your reader completes the action, I think two things happen. Their self-confidence goes up (which feels good) and their trust in you increases.

Sep 19, 2009 at 3:56PM | Unregistered CommenterDebt Settlement Program

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