When Jazz is Your Leadership Style…Leave the Symphony!

If you lead like a jazz artist, then trying to conform to a leadership culture that runs like a symphony might not be the best thing for you or the organization.

I was reminded last night of a fantastically prescient article written by John Clarkeson, former CEO and Chairman of The Boston Consulting Group.  It might be useful to you.

Here’s the link.

Written in 1990 and entitled Jazz vs. Symphony, the article starts with an ominous set of questions…

Is there a leadership crisis? Are we really lacking executives to lead our organizations into the twenty-first century? Or are the specifications for the job changing: should we reexamine what kinds of leaders our organizations need?

Clarkeson then goes on to compare, with compelling anecdote and imagery, the leadership styles of the past (the symphony conductor) with what he poses as the leadership style of the future (the jazz ensemble leader).

He states–in 1990 no less–that the accelerating pace of change will make room for creative leaders who don’t have all the answers and who understand the quirks, nits, and foibles of their teams without demanding that their team be functional robots.

His outline of the “Jazzy” leader and their impact on teams is excellent.  He writes:

Leaders will be in the flow, not remote. Teamwork and cooperation will increase at the expense of individual competition. Cooperative support will moderate anxiety and encourage risk-taking. Talented people will be attracted by the ability to see and influence the whole process, to learn from other knowledgeable people, and by the opportunity to create and grow.

More importantly, he gets at what leaders really must do in order to embrace the Jazz metaphor.

Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire the members of the team to put their best abilities at the service of the team. These leaders will create rather than demand loyalty; the best people will want to work with them. They will communicate effectively with a variety of people, and use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce. They will make leaders of their team members.

Note those concepts:

“Leadership will flow to those whose vision can inspire…”   It doesn’t flow to those who see it as a matter of position.

“Leaders will create rather than demand loyalty…”  Loyalty is a two way street.

“They will exert influence by the values they choose to reinforce.”  In other words, stated values flow less and less from a company and from textual artifacts and more and more from the actions of its leaders (even behind closed doors).

“They will make leaders of their team members.”  Leadership comes with an imperative to develop people as much as to direct them.

Clarkeson’s concepts hit home for me because they get at the most basic question of a person’s fit within a given organization’s leadership culture.  To be sure, 25 years after the publication of this delightful article, there are still a LOT of symphonies out there.

The imperative for you and for me is to know the difference between joining a symphony and joining a jazz ensemble.   Specifically, it gets at the question of whether one can be a Jazz musician in the symphony.

And, I’m not sure.

I suspect that Duke Ellington–the giant of jazz that Clarkeson cites–could have held his own riffing with any given philharmonic orchestra. But, I doubt he would have been special.  His lasting impact on music comes from his ability to adjust, cajole, entertain, grow, and create… Not to conform.

In Clarkeson’s words:

…he would offer up a scrap of an idea, suggest in general what he wanted, and then rely on his players to take cues from each other and to fill in their parts as they thought best.

His players were good but not without equal. He knew their quirks, their gifts, their problems, and he encouraged them to learn to do things they didn’t think they could do. Some players came and went, but many stayed for years. They developed through their membership in the group, and they learned from each other. Most of all, their capacity for innovation grew as they built on their cumulative experience.

I suspect that the moment a hypothetical symphony conductor attempted to stuff Duke in a chair and cut off his avenues of creation, he would have voted with his feet.

There, my friends, is the message.  If you and I aspire to play in a symphony, so be it.  Find a symphony.  Many, many leadership cultures still look to a single conductor for “truth” and bear the scars of such approaches in terms of wasted talent and difficulty adapting to change.

If we, instead, hope to play in a jazz ensemble; then let’s find one.

I suspect there is great pain and frustration awaiting a person with a jazz philosophy who chooses to play in the symphony.  In fact, I’ll bet that when such a thing happens…It’s all about the money.

Perhaps we should reflect on two implications of Clarkeson’s article for us as individuals:

First, the article was written 25 years ago, and there are still plenty of symphony conductors out there in leadership. Change toward a jazz style is slow and you likely won’t make it happen unless you are the key leader.

Second, which follows from the first: When jazz is your thing…leave the symphony behind.

Just for fun, and in case you never had a sense of what jazz can do; I’ll leave you with a short Duke Ellington piece.


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