What Jazz Taught Me About Leadership


When you grow up in Montreal, it’s almost a given that you become a fan of Jazz music. For those you might not know this, every summer Montreal hosts the world’s largest Jazz Festival in the world (I kid you not – we even hold the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest Jazz festival). It’s an annual event that’s been held here for over 35 years and one that I’ve been attending annually since I was in high school.

As such, I’m sure it’s not surprising to know that I often have the sounds of Coltrane, Monk, Peterson, and of course, Ella to name but a few wafting in my office as I sit down to pen my latest leadership insight or to develop my next leadership talk.

It was during one of these creative brainstorming sessions that I got to thinking about the connections that exist between leadership and Jazz. In particular, how each of these pursuits is often represented by this notion of having to take seemingly incongruent elements and helping to transform them into this cohesive, collective effort defined by a shared vision.

Indeed, the key to understanding Jazz is not to focus on the individual musicians and what they alone are playing. Rather, the beauty of Jazz is found in listening to how these musicians can create this sense of harmony and connectedness, even while playing what at times might sound more like a competing mixture of contradictions.

It’s the same truth that underlies how we can succeed at leadership in today’s faster paced, increasingly connected global world. Namely, successful leadership involves connecting our collective efforts to a vision we all understand [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. That we demonstrate the links that exist between what our employees do and that larger vision that we all want to be a part of.

So in this vein of what Jazz reveals about the necessary truths about leading in today’s work environment, I’d like to share the following three lessons from the Jazz world on how we can be the kind of leader our employees need in order to be successful in their collective efforts.

1. Communicate from the heart as much as from the mind

Some people try to get very philosophical and cerebral about what they’re trying to say with Jazz. You don’t need any prologues, you just play. If you have something to say of any worth then people will listen to you.”
– Oscar Peterson

Perhaps one of the more ironic challenges leaders face in today’s digital world is improving the way they communicate to those they lead. It’s ironic because despite the numerous technological advances that have diversified and improved the way we can communicate with each other, leaders continue to struggle with how to better connect with those under their care.

Indeed, a recent Ken Blanchard Company study found that over 80% of employees complained that their bosses don’t listen to them, a number that’s regrettably understandable when we consider how these growing communication channels also serve to increase the number of demands on a leader’s time and attention.

But what this dichotomy reveals is the danger of assuming that our access to these numerous communication channels overrides our responsibility to ensure that we’re connecting at an emotional level with those we lead.

As the quote above reminds us, your employees will listen to you if you have something of value to share. In the case of our leadership, the value our employees seek from us is doing work filled with meaning and purpose [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; that they see and understand why their collective efforts matter because it’s tied to something bigger than ourselves.

That’s why we need to recognize that the ease by which we can now communicate must be paired with the need to speak from the heart; that we answer the heart’s question of why alongside the mind’s question of how.

By addressing those two needs we can create that sense of harmony and balance that talented Jazz musicians are renowned for creating in their various compositions and works, where their music speaks to our heart as much as it does to our mind.

2. Create opportunities for your employees to be heard and understood

Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing.”
– Wynton Marsalis

One of the familiar characteristics of Jazz is how songs that are performed by musical trios and quartets feature solo performances from each of the musicians. Through this series of solo performances, the listener is provided with a unique window into how each musician hears the subtle variations in themes and motifs that can be merged and enveloped into the core theme of the piece.

In listening to how well these various solo performances balance the individual need to create our own unique voice against the need to be part of a shared, cohesive piece, you can almost hear the efforts these musicians made to listen and understand how each of them interprets the composition in order to create this organic melding of concepts and viewpoints.

It’s a critical lesson for today’s leaders to learn considering how we can no longer rely on technological or process-driven measures to keep us competitive in today’s faster-paced work environment. Indeed, one of the recurring themes I’ve written about here on my blog – as well as being the basis of one of the chapters in my 1st book “Leadership Vertigo” – is the importance of fostering that sense of community and belonging within our organization.

Of course, in order to foster a sense of belonging at work, we must ensure that our employees feel heard and understood [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. We have to demonstrate to our employees that their insights, experiences, and creativity are critical to our organization’s success in much the same way as these Jazz musicians work to ensure that every musician’s solo performance is integral to the interpretation of the music they play.

3. We can’t succeed at leadership by sticking to the status quo

We all have the natural human tendency to take the safe route — to do the thing we know will work rather than taking a chance. But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life.”
– Herbie Hancock

Of all the quotes I’m sharing in this piece, this quote from Herbie Hancock really helps to demonstrate how much we can learn from the world of Jazz. Indeed, while reading the quote above, I imagine many of you can now see the parallels between what he describes about the nature of Jazz and the truth about what’s required to succeed in leadership today.

The fundamental truth of leadership is that it’s not about maintaining or preserving the status quo [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Instead, our focus needs to be on how to get our employees to challenge their assumptions of what’s possible; that we encourage them to believe in their potential to be more than they are today.

It’s been a hallmark of leaders throughout history and throughout the world that their successes were not a product of sticking to what they know. Of guiding us down familiar and comfortable paths defined more by our perceptions of the past than a reflection of today’s realities.

Indeed, the legacy of successful leaders is that they challenged us to be better than we are today [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]; that we don’t settle for the safe and familiar, but instead commit ourselves to continually finding ways to build and improve upon what came before us.

In so many ways, this is what lies at the very heart of Jazz, which is why it continues to broaden in both scope and scale in terms of the kinds of musical styles, motifs and concepts that serve to define this musical genre. There is no discussion of what is Jazz and what is not. Instead, the focus is more on discovering new ways to express ideas, concepts, and styles through this increasingly diverse, evolving musical tapestry.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a Jazz fan or not for you to appreciate what we can learn from this musical genre about being the kind of leader our employees need us to be in order to succeed in their collective efforts.

After all, when Herbie Hancock speaks of Jazz living in the present, he might as well be speaking about leadership, as both can only exist as a product of how we choose to respond to what we’ve discovered, learned, and now understand.

In our attempts to navigate today’s workplaces with its ever increasing levels of distractions and attention-getters, we need to be more mindful that it’s only when we’re present to understand today that we can learn about what’s needed for tomorrow [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Although we might be presently consumed by that zeal to just get things done, what Jazz musicians remind us is that there is much to be learned in those moments and interactions with those we work with.

That is, of course, only if we make the effort to truly listen and understand.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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