“I May Not Have Jazz Hands, But I’m Working on Jazz Leadership”

“The real power of jazz is that a group  of people can come together and create improvised art and negotiate their agendas … and that negotiation is the art.” (Wynton Marsalis)

I’ve written before on how leadership (at least collaborative leadership) is like being in a band; today I’d like to zero in on that a bit.

Jazz is considered by many to be the quintessential art form. It is the height and essence of creativity: a group of people that are collectively yet coherently improvising and expressing themselves.

I think—and I’m not the only one—that this is essence of great, creative groups. Relatedly, leadership in a jazz/collaborative sense is not dictating what people play; it’s creating an environment where everyone is simultaneously creating while listening to everyone else in the group. But just because the music contains heavy elements of improvisation, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a leader. Typically, someone is in charge:

  • who chooses the song: “this is the basic structure of what we’ll play”
  • who chooses the key: “this is the basic musical playing field and rules”
  • who chooses the tempo: “this is the speed at which we will move”
  • who determines when it’s not working: “someone is overplaying or not contributing.” 

In other words, a jazz-influenced leader allows everyone to play masterfully and creatively, but still maintains an eye towards the piece being produced for the audience. They also guard the creative process and the group, making sure that all members are negotiating the rules of jazz (such as they are) in a healthy compelling way.

So some quick questions:

If you are a member of a group:

  • have you mastered your “instrument”—the voice that you alone bring to the ensemble?
  • are you contributing? where do you need to push the group in new directions?
  • are you over playing? where might you need to pull back and listen more?

If you are the leader of a group:

  • have you set the ground rules? do you know what “song” you are trying to play?
  • are you allowing the members to play creatively and compellingly?
  • do you need to challenge any members to play more? play less?

Miles… you do the rest….



4 thoughts on ““I May Not Have Jazz Hands, But I’m Working on Jazz Leadership”

  1. Brilliant. Of course I get it in the musical context (yay for jazz hands!), but considering my current work with a senior leadership team, this is really, really tight.

    Good stuff.

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