Tuning up your leadership skills
Does jazz music offer lessons for today’s leaders?
A. Ever since management expert Q34 Peter Drucker compared the job of Chief Executive Officer to that of an orchestra conductor, Q32 the business world has been exploring comparisons and inspirations from the world of music.
Now Warwick Business School Professors Deniz Ucbasaran and Andy Lockett are hitting all the right notes with their study of famous jazz musicians, Leading Entrepreneurial Teams: Insights From Jazz, providing some essential insights for entrepreneurial team leaders.
Ucbasaran and Lockett (together with Durham Business School Professor Michael Humphries) chose jazz for a number of reasons. For a start, jazz bands are synonymous with creativity, improvisation and innovation, all essential ingredients for entrepreneurship. Jazz groups and their members often operate in uncertain and dynamic environments, characterised by rapid change. Yet through collective endeavour many jazz bands find their own structure and harmony and become profitable enterprises – both creatively and commercially.
B. Q30 The authors decided to focus on three of the best known names in jazz – Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. American composer Duke Ellington was a pioneering jazz orchestra leader from the 1920s through to the 1970s. Trumpet player Miles Davis was instrumental in the development of a number of new jazz styles, including bebop and jazz fusion. Jazz drummer Arthur ‘Art’ Blakey became famous as the leader of his band the Jazz Messengers.
Q36 Q28 The research focused on the way that these jazz greats created and ran their musical enterprises. In particular, Ucbasaran and Lockett focused on three specific areas of leadership activity: team formation, team coordination and team turnover.
There were strong similarities in the processes Q37 the band leaders used to assemble their diverse teams of talent.In particular, they looked for musicians with a different sound or way of playing, one that was unique to that band member and would improve the overall sound of the band. That feature was as much bound up with the personality of the individual musician as it was to do with their technical proficiency.
C. But disparate teams, many different personalities, and high levels of creativity are a recipe for group conflict. And, sure enough, there was plenty of dysfunctional conflict and disruptive clashes of egos and personalities evident in the jazz ensembles. Traditional team leadership theory suggests that to get the best team performance the leader should foster conflict that is productive in its effects, while minimising destructive conflict. But this is difficult when the sources of productive and destructive conflict are the same; that is, differences in personality and thinking. Q38 So how do leaders deal with destructive conflict? It didn’t seem to bother the likes of Ellington, Davis and Blakey. Their attitude was ‘the music comes first’. The moments of musical genius when everything came together excused minor problems such as if individuals occasionally turned up late for practice, or stepped out of a performance for a quick snack.
D. Teams must coordinate their behaviour and action to achieve an outcome. The team leader can assume a number of different roles when helping the team achieve its objectives. Some leaders are very directive, detailing what tasks they want team members to perform, and how they want them to go about those tasks.
But that was not the approach Ellington, Davis and Blakey adopted. Instead, Q33 these leaders acted more as facilitators, empowering the musicians to collectively coordinate their behaviour and action to produce the desired outcome. As Ucbasaran and Lockett note, Q31 Miles Davis discouraged band members from rehearsing in case it led to musical cliches from over-practice. Similarly, he often asked his musicians to play a piece in an unusual key, so they did not rely on learned fingering patterns. The performers were not left entirely to their own devices though. Q39 All three leaders created a general framework within which team members could work, providing guidance but also the freedom to explore, express and make mistakes.
E. Q35 The third aspect of leadership behaviour that Ucbasaran and her colleagues looked at was managing team turnover – people joining and leaving the team. In the jazz ensembles studied, musicians joined and left on a regular basis. Q40 Yet the high turnover of team members, despite the resulting loss of knowledge and skills, was seen in a positive light. That was partly because of the advantages of getting a fresh shot of knowledge, ideas and creativity when new members joined.
A common reason for the jazz musicians leaving was that they felt sufficiently qualified to go and run another band. The three band leaders were understanding about this, particularly as it was a process they had also been through. In some cases, Q29 in particular with Art Blakey, they actively encouraged and coached team members to become leaders. As the jazz icons Ellington, Davis and Blakey would no doubt agree, there is no magic score that if followed note by note will make you a great leader of creative talent. However, take an entrepreneur, a few cues from the aforementioned jazz trio, mix in a little improvisation, and you are more likely to hear the sweet sound of success. As Louis Armstrong once sang: ‘Now that’s jazz’.