Jazz as a Leadership Development Tool

What do Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis have in common? The answer is that to achieve the level of success they have all had to be great leaders.

Say what? Football coaches and jazz musicians are leaders of equal effectiveness and influence?

Absolutely. In fact, given that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, the following essay will make the case that jazz may be a more effective leadership development tool than football for the 21st Century.

A common cultural belief is that nothing instills in participants, character traits such as discipline, personal responsibility and leadership skills, than participation in team sports. The leadership skills that are taught and developed on the playing field, it is said, carry over to effective leadership off the field. The notion that team sports and, in particular, football builds leaders is a long-held and very powerful justification for our continued investment in them as an effective educational tool.

But the fact is, music also provides opportunities to exhibit and develop leadership skills. There is no difference between a team and a band in terms of the requirements for reaching the predetermined goals of winning (football) and achieving a particular sound (music). In short, any team (band) setting offers tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.

But the elements and characteristics required of good leaders are not static. Effective leadership requires recognition that worker attitudes, work environments and productivity expectations can change. That being the case, desirable and effective leadership skills and styles must also evolve. There was a time, for example, when the iron-fisted “my way or the highway” style of leadership was considered very effective. But times change, people change and entire industries can change. Employees now demand more respect and collaboration.  As a result, effective leaders can no longer simply demand performance; they must nurture a more collaborative work environment if they wish to maximize worker and company productivity. Employees today don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine. They want to be respected and have a part in the decision-making process. Smart and effective leaders understand that. Employees who are more invested in the decision-making process are more productive employees.

Frank Barrett, in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, elaborates:

We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change. Command-and-control models of leadership stress routines and rules. They demand rigorous and clear organizational structures reinforced by rules, plans, budgets PERT charts, schedules, clearly defined roles, and the use of coercion or intimidation to get worker compliance. These might have worked well in the first part of the twentieth century when organizations were designed like machines, tasks were broken down into small parts that could easily be replicated, and people could be replaced as easily as machine parts. But as we enter the knowledge-intensive demands of the twenty-first century, we need to rotate our images and increase our leadership repertoire beyond these hierarchical models, so that we can more fully appreciate the power of relationships.

This begs the question. Given this shift in desired leadership style to a more collaborative focus, how does the traditional leadership style of the football culture hold up versus the jazz influenced leadership style outlined by Barrett? Barrett continues:

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals, encouraging ongoing learning and innovation rather than compliance to preordained plans. Leaders don’t have the luxury of anticipating or predicting every situation, training and rehearsing for it, and getting learning out of the way before executing. Rather, leaders must master the art of learning while doing and spread this mastery throughout their systems. That’s why jazz bands are such provocative models for us to consider as we create teams and organizations in the twenty-first century.

How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment , learn and innovate – in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age. An improvisation model of organizing created a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning toward a narrowness of control. “  (Barrett, 2012, pp.xiv,xv.)

In short, both football and music teach leadership. But is it possible that while football’s style of teaching was better suited to the Industrial Age, the jazz-influenced model of leadership style may be more effective in the creative economy and workplace of the 21st Century?

Now that’s something to consider not only during Jazz Appreciation Month, but year-round.

Justin Rule

creative director