Words Build Worlds

Michael Gold, PhD, Jazz Impact

Jazz and Leadership

Language is always at the center of change. Like jazz, words are the notes, conversations the improvisations that invent the future. Words ask the questions and the moment we ask a question, we create a change. Words direct our attention and the focus of our attention creates reality.

There's a word that is creating a lot of uncertainty, confusion and paradox these days.

The word is Leadership. Many of us are unconsciously bound by the notion of the romance of leadership, which causes us to "inaccurately attribute all of an organization's success and failure to its leader, ignoring its legions of followers."* In reality, unilateral leadership has always been a myth. The figurehead may get the credit but it's the real people that make the cars. Mary Follett, one of the pioneers of management science, understood this when she wrote in The Creative Experience (1924!!!) "I can never influence you, because you have already influenced me."

Leadership is a two-sided coin. Robert Kelley, a professor of management and organizational behavior, defined the term "followership" in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article as: "being committed to a purpose, principle or person outside themselves" and being "courageous, honest and credible."

We are living in a world where predictability, stability, and homogeneity are receding into the past very quickly. Structured hierarchy, top down command and control management, status quo thinking and benchmarking the past as the only way to navigate the future is not only antiquated, it is dangerous. Think of it as the difference between these two systems: The symphony orchestra, where everyone plays their written part, not changing or improving anything but replicating the music to the best of their ability while being conducted by one charismatic individual who is also reading every note from a score. In this system, input and output are absolutely constrained. (In 1998, a study was done that seemed to demonstrate prison guards (Yes, prison guards) had greater job satisfaction in their profession than orchestral musicians.)

Now contrast that system with the jazz ensemble, an evolution of the symphony using some of the same instruments, the same language, and the same theoretical rules of design. There is one basic difference. In the jazz ensemble, we ARE expected to change things, to improve things, and to do it in collaboration with each other. In this system the organizing structure has been immensely simplified to allow for individual and collective improvisation. This is a system of the controlled release of ideas as opposed to the absolute constraint of ideas.

No wonder the jazz ensemble was, and is, the crucible that spawned the multibillion-dollar industry of rock and pop music worldwide.

Businesses are improvising every minute of every day. The headlines bemoan the uncertainty of change as if some period of golden stasis and predictability will soon descend on us. NOT. We are now improvising and there is nothing in the lexicon of traditional management science that helps us understand how an organization improvises. I’ve used jazz as a generative metaphor for Leadership Development at Kellogg Northwestern for many years now. When I use the ensemble to demonstrate that true leadership in changing environments is a relational condition that exists at every level of the organization, executive managers seize on the insights as if they had been searching for them for years and -- in fact -- they have been.

Many of the executives have had the epiphany that this type of relational leadership can’t be quantified and measured because it isn’t a static condition. It is distributed and emergent. This type of leadership is a relational quality that appears exactly when and where it is needed with precisely the right support. The great challenge is to sustain this kind of relational leadership you need people who are empathically and aesthetically intelligent.

Uh Ohh!! Half the audience just started running for the exit, right? Sorry for the 25 cent words but there just ain’t no other way to explain what’s missing from most of our workplace cultures let alone the political arena.

Let’s start with Aesthetic Intelligence, a term introduced by Rochelle Mucha in a book of the same title. It means: “the capacity to fully utilize the power of your senses to reveal fresh approaches to tackling long-standing challenges and opportunities in a global, ever-changing marketplace.” How many leaders do you know that function like that? THAT subject should be 101 in any good MBA Program but guess what? It’s not.

And what is empathic intelligence? Well, the poet John Keats defined it as “Negative Capability” – the capacity to live with and tolerate paradox and ambiguity. But to identify with the moods and modes of suffering of others you have to tolerate paradox and ambiguity. Important? You bet it is. Let’s demystify Keats’s ‘suffering’ and call it the uncomfortable state of holding yourself open to conflicting possibilities. Think of a time when your spouse or kids were graced with that state of mind. Ahhh, familial bliss, right? And if you are fortunate enough to work in an environment where managers, and C suiters have these capabilities, then you’re likely to be experiencing the agile fluidity of distributed and emergent leadership in your day-to -day experience. You’re also likely to be working in a company that is colonizing the future as it creates it’s own market share. That is improvisation.

Unfortunately there is an enormous shortage of this kind of thinking and it’s due in large part to the absence of language to imagine and actualize it. We need new systemic models to look towards as generative metaphors. We need to understand that true leadership is NEVER separated from integrated follower ship. We need the experience of knowing the leader is actually following the cues of those they are leading. Ironically, there is model and it's been there ever since 1924 when Mary Follett published The Creative Experience. It's Jazz. Really? Really.

I’m a jazz bass player. Think of me as an operations manager. The pulse of my single note bass line is a link between the rhythmic world of the drums and the tonal world of the other instruments. I lay down the foundation and I can feel the presence (or lack thereof) of empathic and aesthetic intelligence. When it's there I expand. When it's not by back hurts -- literally!

Take a look at this You Tube clip of Thelonious Monk and his quartet. https://youtu.be/6Di_mswqhLU

Check out the bass player when the sax player starts soloing after they play the melody. That's empathic intelligence. They are building those ideas together. And the bass player could completely undermine the sax player . . . if that is what he intended. But why would he? Look at the energy, the power, and the continuity. What’s happening there is an expansion beyond their own limitations by working together off of each other’s strengths. There is so much more to gain by finding what works and aligning strengths.  They are swinging and THAT is empathic intelligence.

In jazz we approach every performance with an open mind and unlimited drive. We rely on each other, consult each other for advice, and we ask each other questions about how to approach every challenge. We are always willing to try anything new that’s thrown our way without hesitation, seizing any opportunity to be challenged and learn something new. Gradually we learn to always ask the right questions to improve and develop ourselves. In jazz we are constantly challenging the status quo by identifying new and better ways of improvising- especially as an ensemble – a team. This adds extreme value to our strategy as individual improvisers and as an operating ensemble.

What would it be like if you replaced the words “in jazz” with “in my company” in the paragraph above? Can you imagine it.

Actually, that is what I did.  I took a 360 degree review of a young lady I know who is blossoming at an exponential rate in a very cool hi tech company in San Francisco and replaced the name of the company with reference to the jazz ensemble. It’s true in jazz and it’s true at that company. And the only reason she can fulfill her potential as a human being is because the company’s culture wants and #leaneeds her to do it.

That’s leadership jazz. Let’s wake up. The music has been talking to us for over a century.


* Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Follower’s. The glorification of leadership skills, especially in college admissions, has emptied leadership of its meaning. By Susan Cain NY Times March 24, 2017