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Looking for Leadership? Think Jazz

Posted By Paul Tate, August 13, 2012 at 10:42 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

Collaboration. Improvisation. Spontaneity. Individual talent. All the qualities future manufacturing leaders are expected to display as they strive to cope with the constantly turbulent and ever-changing nature of today’s global industry.

Sound familiar? It certainly would be if you played jazz.

A while ago, both Forbes and Fast Company magazine featured a management book called "Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz”, published by Harvard Business Review Press. The author, Frank J. Barrett, is professor of management and global public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and an accomplished jazz pianist himself.

Yes to the Mess aims to identify enlightening lessons taken from the world of improvised jazz that resonate with the needs of today’s corporate leaders operating in discordant times. Barrett’s theme is about how, to stay on top of their profession, both jazz musicians and modern leaders must constantly adapt to change; synchronize individual talents into collaborative effort; improvise in the face of chaos, unfamiliarity, or adversity; and find harmony through constant dialogue in an increasingly unstructured environment.

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership,” Barrett writes. “It's the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less.”

This is not the first time an association between jazz and leadership has hit the industrial stage. Warren Bennis, founding chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California and one of the world’s pioneers in leadership theory, once said, “I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation.”

Later, in 1993, Max De Pree’s book Leadership Jazz also argued, ”We have much to learn from jazz-band leaders, for jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals.”

So, what does Barrett bring to today’s global management speakeasy? Here are a few leadership riffs from his new book, as highlighted in his recent Fast Company article:

Approach Leadership Tasks as Experiments: “This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery, floating hypotheses about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces.”

Everyone Gets a Chance to Solo: “When self-directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns heading up various projects as their expertise is needed. The same happens in jazz bands, where everyone gets a turn to solo.”

Deliberately Break a Routine: “Serendipity doesn't just happen. It takes preparation. Work teams are particularly vulnerable to falling into a pattern of activity without explicitly thinking about it or deciding to do so. Even a simple process question in the midst of team activity can serve to disrupt routines just enough to trigger people to consider options.”

Cultivate Provocative Competence: “The need for leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence -- a virtual impossibility -- leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps.”

Barrett draws many more jazz and leadership parallels in his new book. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re a rock, pop, folk, country, jazz, or rap fan; ultimately, the sound of success in today’s manufacturing business is all about listening for the cues, and knowing when to improvise and act. “Musicians prepare themselves to be spontaneous,” Barrett notes. “Managers and executives can do the same.”

These days, leaders need to learn how to improvise if they want their organizations to play a successful tune. As Duke Ellington put it: “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

Find out more about the critical qualities that manufacturing’s next generation of leaders need to succeed in our latest exclusive research report: Manufacturing Leadership: The New Struggle For Customer-Centricity.


paultate.jpgPaul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor of the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors. 


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Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive



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Posted on
James Sanford
Aug 16, 2012 5:08 PM
I like his juxtaposition. Its a need founded in collaborative areas where the group must perform together in order to win. Similar to the game of basketball or being the point guard of the team. You must first understand that your role is to make everyone else look good, to position them for ultimate personal success within the team, that all team members are contributors and have value, and if the team wins, its music to the customers ears and I look Real Good!
Posted on
Ken Goldberg Aug 22, 2012 7:24 AM
I don’t know the full extent of all of the references being made, but I love what I have read so far! You have got my curiosity and interest and will definitely pick up the book to learn more; besides, I also love Jazz.
As a side but connected story, some years back, I had the unique opportunity to watch and listen to one of the world’s greatest Classical French Horn players sit in with a group of Jazz musicians on an almost weekly basis, over a period of years. He started timid and off to the side of the stage practicing the improvisation away from the lights and when it was his turn to take the nod and do his thing,he often shook his head and passed up the chance.…fast forward to one day years later, he stood front and center with one of the most unconventional Piccolo trumpet players tossing back and forth note after note, phrase after phrase in one of the greatest moments in my listening experience. I can see the correlation to the references being made in “Looking for Leadership? Think Jazz” and want to know more.
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