Being a jazz lover and a business person, I prick up my ears when anyone starts talking about Miles Davis and business leadership.
And that’s exactly what Frank Barrett does in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.
Jazz aside, Barrett’s insights and observations about leadership in the digital age strike a familiar chord with my own experience.
In this 20 minute interview with HBR Ideacast, Barrett discusses 3 key leadership lessons from jazz that all of us can apply.
Say yes to the mess
The title of Barrett’s book is also it’s most important message: just say yes. “The mess” is a reality we all confront in business: we live in an accelerating information universe. The amount of information we need to process as leaders is rapidly increasing and much of this data is unclear and equivocal. As leaders and managers, we tend to try to exert control and problem-solve when faced with such challenges. And yet we can exert no more control over the accelerating information universe than a surfer can over the waves on which he/she rides. Or a jazz musician can over what his fellow players play. Worse, the problem-solving approach reduces our ability to be creative and open to new solutions.
Improvisational techniques can help us perform as a team
Leadership is a team sport and the improvisational arts, such as jazz and comedy, can teach us a lot about how to deliver performance in a dynamic and uncertain environment. Comedy improvisors employ a technique called “Yes, and…” that helps to keep the creative process flowing among the troupe. This technique creates a positive environment in which others can feel supported in taking chances and leading. Improvisational jazz musicians do the same thing by focussing on “unlearning” their own routines and techniques in order to achieve what Barrett calls a “radical receptivity” to the musical ideas their band mates are expressing.
When facing the pressures of live performance, the tendency of jazz players and business leaders is to resort to what may have worked in the past. Yet this closes them to the possibilities of what might work now. Employing these improvisational techniques in a business or organizational setting opens up possibilities for others in the group to take leadership roles and creatively play off each other in novel ways.
Followership as a noble calling
Business leadership books tend to focus on great leaders: Jobs, Gates, Welch, etc. The great leader mythology gets disproportionate attention, as compared to the stories of great followership that contribute to making the leaders appear as good as they are.
“Comping”, or accompanying, in jazz improvisation is what the other members of the band do when the soloist is playing. Followership in this context requires the careful attention of the other players to what the soloist is playing so that the accompaniment complements and elevates the performance – literally making a greater whole out of the sum of the parts. Great leadership should promote and hone the concept of great followership among teams.
Frank Barrett’s book – Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz – is available online at HBR. An excellent review also appears in Forbes: Leadership Lessons From The Geniuses Of Jazz.