Improvisational Leadership? Yes!


I recently read an article, If Miles Davis Taught Your Office To Improvise on Fast Company. This article was excerpted from the book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz by Frank J. Barrett. Now that I have the attributions taken care of, I can move to why I found this article or general thought process interesting.

Anyone who has been around my life for more than a split second knows that a fair amount of what I do revolves around music. In fact, my undergraduate degree is from Temple University in music education and jazz performance. I have also spent fourteen years in public education as a teacher, technology coordinator, and until recently technology administrator leading the charge for not only great instructional practice, but, in addition, technological innovation. In other words, I can speak with some authority on the comparison between great organizational leadership (especially in education) and jazz. With that stated, Barrett does identify some key points of intersection between what great jazz musicians and great leaders accomplish on a daily basis.

What are these accomplishments? Let’s start first with the general idea of improvisation. Improvisation in jazz is NOT the art of just making it up with whatever inspiration you have at the moment. It is NOT the ultimate freedom to put just any notes into the musical second. If that was the case, we would have, well, pretty poor music by anyone’s standards. It turns out that we as listeners are pretty particular about what we like to hear. Make no doubt about it, people want to hear certain very predictable tone colors, harmonies, and melodies. When it comes down to it, improvisation is the art of creativity within a complex framework. The key word here is complex. The framework was and will never be a random or haphazardly thrown together set of rules. It is a representation of a long tradition of great musicians and their innovative developments. Jazz just didn’t happen one day or from one source. It is the confluence of many, many greats such as Miles Davis as Barrett concludes. Musicians who practice the craft today do the same. They innovate within the accepted norms of the jazz framework. It is important to realize that there is a lineage here. It isn’t crazy diversions that are celebrated. Prominent jazz musicians of today respect the art form’s traditions and enhance with their own personalities and creativity. What is celebrated and honored is the creative integration of both innovation and tradition.

Here’s the first common characteristic. There is no doubt that the job of a leader happens within a very intricate organizational culture, series of expected “rules”/policies, and in a way that accounts for the entire system of activity…the framework. When great leaders improvise, they may reach for the wild innovations, but need to also massage them within the rules of the framework. The very art of improvising. When they forget the framework, leaders run the risk of disrespecting the organization and its cultural existence. Yes, some organizations may need reform, change, or even total makeovers, but that does not mean that the past activities and culture that have been created should be thrown away in one giant flush. It should be a gradual movement over time. Think about this with respect to music in general. The Beatles were at first rejected for their inappropriate sounds. Jazz was devils music. The list goes on and on. No one at first liked their music. We became to appreciate and enjoy over time. A leader can be absolutely correct in their innovative actions, but if it is too far away from what is accepted by the organizational culture, then it will be rejected at first as “noise.” Leadership ahead of its time. There must be a productive movement that first starts with the appreciation of change. This concept leads to Barrett’s central theme.

Barrett’s most basic claim is to break away from the groove of everyday decisions. He wants leaders to forge new grounds. Barrett wants leaders to consistently look to innovation and creative thought processes that will drive success. Barrett’s choice of Miles Davis was spot on. Miles was absolutely the epitome of “cracking the nut” of innovation both at the musical second during a performance and over his lifetime. It seems that every new decade he was alive, he sought and perfected a new musical genre drawn from the foundation traditions of jazz for all to follow. He did this not only because he was a superb musician himself, but because he surrounded himself with what Steve Jobs called “team A” players. People that were just as able to disrupt traditions in ways that were overtly respectful to the creators and yet amazingly visionary. Miles knew who would inspire himself, who would fit together, and who would be better together than apart. Great leaders do this as well. They understand the need to break out of the mundane norms of the moment and seek out individuals who can thrive in these environments.

This is all well and good on the surface. These are the obvious conclusions that can be drawn. Miles took this to new level because he placed an importance on the artform itself. The art of creativity, innovation, and composition was of utmost importance. Why do I say this? In your spare time, head to YouTube and search for any of Miles’ videos. Now tell me that you hear a great virtuoso trumpet performance in the traditions of such greats like Wynton Marsalis, Louie Armstrong, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, etc. Miles, although an awesome musician, has never been known because of his clean tone, fast fingers, or flawless execution. What? Is that possible? Then why was he so appreciated?

Miles understood how to take the good, the bad, and, yes, the ugly and sculpt it into something absolutely creative. He did it relentlessly. He did it instinctively. He knew what he had to work with and made everyone fall in love with it. Like Steve Jobs, he did not win over the hearts of his fans by his ultra smooth personality. Miles was at best rough and absurdly up front in his communications. He attracted the best musicians because he was the Apple of the jazz world. The force with a singular focus of producing the best and most innovative music. The most impressive element of his music was that he took what was considered by well trained musician (especially trumpet players) as poor performance techniques and made the audience fall in love with them. The audience seemed to not care that a note exploded, cracked, or splatted. In fact, they celebrated it as uniquely Miles’ style. Great leaders now why they exist. They know the purpose behind there daily actions. They make people wantto follow at all costs.

Jazz and leadership. Who would have thought?

There are so many more comparisons that can be drown between the complex art form of jazz and successful leaders…to many for this singular post. I guess that means more content to follow. Stay tuned!

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