Leadership Lessons from Jazz

“If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.”Miles Davis

My favourite album is Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Leading is a lot like jazz.

Jazz is messy. Leaders face mess as the pace of change quickens. We live in a fast paced world with cues and signals which we need to interpret. We have no guarantee whether our actions are going to be successful or not. We don’t know the consequences of our actions. We face incomplete information, and yet we have to take action anyway.

Managers often try to control things. Leaders need to develop an “improvisational mindset” according to management professor and accomplished jazz pianist, Frank Barrett Yes to the Mess – Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. An “improvisational mindset” means leaping in and saying “yes”—seeing there will be a pathway if we leap in and take action. If we only have a problem-solving mindset, our imagination is shrunk. The possibilities for action will be smaller. We need to cultivate a mindset that says “yes” to the possibility of something new and creative emerging. That “yes” is self-empowering and empowers others—it makes it safer for everyone to leap in and take some risks.

Jazz is a group activity. When jazz musicians are improvising, they are acting and creating on the spot. They are responding to each other and hoping that something good and creative will emerge. This also happens when great teams are working together. Great teams hit a groove, offer ideas, take turns soloing and supporting.

One of the principles jazz musicians live by is mastering the art of unlearning. The enemy to jazz improvisation is routines, habits and success traps. There is a temptation to play what has been played well in the past. It’s risky to make something up in front of an audience. So jazz musicians have to trick themselves into unlearning their own routines and habits so they don’t automatically fall back into clichés. Great leaders help dislodge routines so new possibilities can emerge.

When Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue in 1959, the dominant form of jazz was bepop—lots of hard driving fast chord changes. When his quintet arrived at the recording studio, Miles Davis presented a sketch of just two chord modes, turned to the recording engineer, and said, “hit it”. So everything on this recording is a first take. The musicians are exploring the music for the first time. They couldn’t rely on old routines and habits. They had to be receptive and use all the skills at their disposal. They had to respond on the spot—noticing, creating and discovering all simultaneously. It turned out to be the highest selling jazz album of all time.

Maybe that’s why I love it—I love the spirit, the energy, it’s unleashed. It’s free. I feel liberated when I listen to it.

So, how can you lead more like jazz?

Take risks. Experiment. Be comfortable making mistakes. Transform mistakes into experiences by learning from them. Make it safe for others to make mistakes. Be forgiving—of yourself and others. Of course, there are some areas where mistakes are intolerable. But, most of the time, create a mode of exploration and experimentation. Follow sometimes, lead at others. Be a “yes”. Courage is the presence of fear and willingness to take action.