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Home > 2013 > March Online Only > Lead Like Jazz (Part 2)

There are certain moments in life for which there is no script. Jazz is like that for me.

The words "classical" and "jazz" have become leadership metaphors for me. If you missed my first "Lead Like Jazz" article, let me recap some basic ideas.

In classical music, the musicians play the notes that are placed in front of them. They carefully follow the conductor's direction, and they're expected to play with precision. Paying careful attention to detail is what defines excellence.

Jazz is different. Contrary to what non-jazz lovers may think, jazz is not a talent-less free-for-all. It just requires a different approach to making music. There's no conductor and rarely (if ever) any sheet music. Because the musicians are often improvising and "playing by ear," they need a different set of skill.

I often see other leaders in my organization, regardless of whether or not they've ever picked up an instrument, as musicians that I may get an opportunity to play with. While most people lean more toward one leadership style than another, the ability to move between styles and remain fluid can be a tremendous asset to any team. Ordinary groups can become extraordinary teams as members help each other move between genres. The classical musicians may need some encouragement to play a little jazz to see a challenging situation from a different perspective, while those who naturally play jazz may need to dial it back sometimes to achieve greater focus and clarity.

In jazz, the "groove" created in the moment determines the outcome (sound, emotion, feeling). In classical style, the composer and conductor have predetermined the outcome. When a leader and team find that "leadership groove," where they mesh creatively and challenge the sheet music, they can move into an incredible place of synergistic collaboration.

Finding the groove is a beautiful thing in a great musical performance, but it is even more priceless when a group of individuals become a committed team. As followers of Jesus, we've got to acknowledge up front that he is the ultimate source behind any meaningful groove we could hope to discover. Knowing that he has invited us to join him on this journey, given us spiritual gifts, talents, and creativity, we owe it to him and to ourselves to be wise and faithful stewards of what he has entrusted to us.

But as intuitive as jazz can be, it takes care to make your music worth listening to. To find the leadership groove, you gotta know what song you're trying to play, you gotta know when it's your time to play.

You gotta know what song you're trying to play.

Leaders need vision. We may not always know how we are going to get there, but we do need to know where "there" is. Bill Hybels once said, "A leader's job is to move people from here to there." Andy Stanley described "there" as a "clear mental picture of what could be, fueled by the conviction that it should be." Stephen Covey described "there" as "beginning with the end in mind." While jazz musicians are able to improvise and make things up on the spot, great band leaders are visionary and strategic, always knowing what song they are playing and what song they're going to call next.

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Posted: March 25, 2013

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Scott Olson

April 02, 2013  8:46am

Thanks for the encouragement John Harris. I'm not sure whether you are a "professional jazz guy" or not, but I have always loved and admired your style. I see you as someone who knows how to maximize key moments into something worthwhile. I have watched you and learned a lot from you (even from a distance). Thanks for your leadership!

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John Harris

April 02, 2013  6:58am

Another excellent article - there is a lot to reflect on. Among them two lines struck me as I read: 1. "Word choice and timing are a powerful combination in the hands of an emerging leader" - I am certainly learing that one and it is not only the case for emerging leaders but some not so new leaders could pay attention to that principle more often; 2. Love this line as well - "There are certain moments in life for which there is no script. Our formal training and preparation can take us far, but sometimes not far enough. Sometimes we just need that extra "something." That is so true and the idea of leading like jazz is a great take on those moments. Experienced one of those this Easter weekend. Thanks!

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Scott Olson

March 29, 2013  9:26am

Thanks for the encouragement John Celmer. You are a great Leader, Dad and Husband!! Thanks for being an example to me...

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John Celmer

March 28, 2013  10:15pm

Scott, thank you for a great way to address our own teams...business teams or our personal teams (family). We all need to play jazz together regardless if we play an instrument or not. Thanks for showing us a great way to lead...and to live!

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Al Goracke

March 26, 2013  10:25am

For some reason I want to eat some BBQ ribs and listen to Coltrane and its only 10 am! Great teaching Scott! Proud of you!

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