4 Leadership Lessons from the World of Jazz

I like to say that jazz is like a nice glass of wine. Why do I say that? Well, perhaps because I love jazz and I love wine, and who doesn’t! But beyond that, wine and jazz are both things that evolve as you experience them. You come to appreciate both in different ways – the longer you listen to/taste it. Like a grape that ripens with age produces a beautiful wine, young leaders ripen with experience and blossom into strong individuals who create opportunities for their employees and build a culture of innovation and freedom to experiment.

jazz playersThe art of leadership is a complex mixture of knowing when to lead, when to follow, when to encourage, and when to provoke. Many concepts and examples in the world of jazz music, the American-born art form, provide simple yet relatable analogies to successful leadership models for businesses today. Here are a few lessons that I think jazz can teach to leaders today.

1. Master the Art of Unlearning: Routines can be alluring, yes, and are often helpful. However, they can also act as roadblocks to learning. Routines allow for success, but at the cost of sacrificing innovation – due to the fear of failure. For jazz players, perfecting solos and playing old material can be tempting, but the mark of a good improviser is one who keeps pushing the boundaries, instead of relying on their past experiences. Leaders need to be the catalysts who help their people unlearn standard routines. Try challenging your team by changing up the office routine; take your employees out to lunch, initiate a one hour “play time,” set-up an office or city-wide treasure hunt, or even a CSR-themed random acts of kindness scavenger hunt!

2. Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously (Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning): As in jazz, so in life. Trial and error is the only key to success – business cannot rely on past experiences alone. However, more important than trial and error is creating a safe and nurturing atmosphere where employees feel empowered to share their errors and the lessons learned from these mistakes. Listen to your employees, understand where they thrive (in informal discussions, in team projects, in weekly meetings, etc.), and create the atmosphere of creativity and acceptance for new ideas. By providing the space for your employees to flourish, you will set them up for experimentation and ultimately innovation for the future.

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3. Jamming and Hanging Out (Learning by Doing and Talking): Working in a bubble or silo does nothing for innovation. Creating opportunities for what musicians call “jamming” – informal playing and conversation around music – allows employees to collaborate and collectively create in ways otherwise impossible. Provide opportunities for your teams to come together as a larger organizational team and break out of the departmental silos. Whether this is done through structured team-building activities, cross-departmental projects, innovation projects, team-wide brainstorming or informal chatting time, your job as a leader is to create opportunities for this cross-pollination to happen regularly.

4. Taking Turns Soloing and Supporting (Followership as a Noble Calling): Leaders must know when to lead and when to follow others taking the lead. As in jazz improvisation, no single musician is the star the entire time; even the best solo artist knows how to follow his or her band. The same must be true of every organization. As Michael Hyatt, author and speaker on leadership, has rightly said, “…if you want to be a great leader, you must first become a great follower.” Support your team by learning how to follow those who are following you. Being a leader does not mean each and every initiative/project in the organization has to be driven by you. When you as a leader follow at times, people learn that being a follower is just as important and noble a calling.

Initiating your version of any of the ideas above is a great start to strengthening your leadership style. For more unique lessons on leadership, check out the book that inspired this post – Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Professor of Management and accomplished jazz musician Dr. Frank J. Barrett.

As much as we can learn from this book, we can also learn from our readers. Reach out and let us know how your own leadership style has blossomed over the years!

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