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Home > 2012 > November Web Exclusives > Lead Like Jazz

Jazz. I absolutely love it. I know some don't. Others say it's an "acquired taste," but for me there's nothing like it.

My music journey began in the fifth grade when my parents rented my first clarinet. Through the years my training has included intense study of classical music and countless opportunities to learn and play jazz. While I continue to love both genres and cherish every note I've ever played, it is jazz that has forever captured my heart.

It's not just about the music, either. The older I get, the more I'm seeing the impact that jazz has played on my leadership style. Sounds strange, I know. But the connection between leadership and music makes sense, especially when you begin to understand the difference between classical and jazz. Both genres correlate to distinctive leadership styles.

Here's what I mean. In classical music, someone chooses the song that will be played and hands the musician the sheet music. Every note, crescendo, decrescendo, staccato, and nuance has been written into the music by the composer. The musician's ability to play the music exactly as it has been written is paramount. The only true creativity that is allowed comes from the conductor. The conductor brings a little personality to the performance; yet typically, don't stray too far from the intent of the composer.

Jazz is different. When jazz players get together one of the things they love to do is "jam." These sessions typically involve a lot of improvisation and playing by ear. There's no conductor and rarely (if ever) any sheet music. Someone usually calls out the name of a song, someone might ask, "What key?" Before you know it the song is under way. What happens next (in my opinion) is the true beauty of jazz.

The song is moving along when all of a sudden one of the musicians hits an interesting note or plays an unusual rhythm. Everyone hears it and suddenly the bass player picks up on what the drummer just did. The piano player hears it, smiles and changes what he or she was playing and now the sax player is on fire, playing something totally different and unexpected. It is all unscripted but it's important to note: this is not a chaotic free-for-all. The musicians are still playing the song that they started playing earlier. They're just adding some creative nuances to it. This synergy takes everyone to the next level. That's why with jazz, the same song, played by the same people night after night, can sound quite different in any given rehearsal or performance.

So where's the leadership application?

There are times when we as leaders need to take a classical approach. Highly detailed projects require careful attention to detail. We need to play every note on the page. I don't want my dentist playing "jazz" in my mouth during a root canal. I want accuracy. I want rules followed. I want exact science applied. Many leaders are process people and have personalities that tend to make them focus on details, accuracy, and good process. But there are certain situations that call for a different approach. There are times when we encounter obstacles and ambiguity, times where a little "jazz" is just what it takes to lead on another level.

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Posted: November 12, 2012

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