Leadership…and All That Jazz

Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra.  But I don’t think that’s quite it.  It’s more like jazz.  There is more improvisation”

I must confess that I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.

In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), which transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.

So it is with leadership.

In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy.  And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work.  The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.

At those times, improvisation is a useful tool.  However, as with jazz, improvisation, on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.

In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational purpose.  And, how far afield we are willing to go from that is usually grounded in a number of principles emanating from considerations like:

How much we know

The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about our immediate environment, our markets, our politics and our world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.

How much we are willing to risk

When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.

How much we believe

If we have our organization’s core purpose etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.

How much we imagine

Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.

In short, I think there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it.  It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.



Filed under Leadership Development, Leading Change, organizational Development

18 responses to “Leadership…and All That Jazz

  1. Hi Gwyn,

    As soon as I saw your piece, I knew I was going to love it being a big fan of Jazz. The fact that you ended it with a piece from Oscar Peterson was the icing on the cake.

    There really are so many amazing connections that can be drawn between Jazz and leadership. Thanks for illuminating some of them in your piece. Wonderful read to start the week.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks Tanveer! I’m so glad this one ‘spoke’ to you.
      I’d really love to know the connections *you* make between leadership and jazz. Perhaps you would write a piece about it some time.

      • Actually, your piece has inspired me to consider writing a piece about Jazz and leadership. I’m working on coalescing the ideas I have on this, but I know I’ll be giving you credit for the inspiration. 🙂

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    I will look forward to reading it with great relish!

  3. Fantastic metaphor. It really is like Jazz- sometimes it’s crazy chaos and others it’s a sullen, sad song- but the comment about improvisation is right on target.

  4. Gwyn, thanks for this great piece. I think the metaphor of leadership being more like jazz is excellent. Jazz requires a foundation of willingness to risk and try new things. And because leadership requires so much improvisation, there is an implicit (at least in my mind) necessity for leaders to be willing to risk and try new things too. Jazz, when always playing the same chords in the same sequence, can be pretty mundane. Leadership, if using a proscribed set of tools can be pretty mundane too.

    Finally, I’m a big fan of leaders having a core of meaning within them to serve as an anchor to keep them on track as they are improvising. Personal values and purpose are a great place to start.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Mary Jo, I really like your last comment about leaders having a core of meaning within them to serve as an anchor. In my mind, that captures the essence of this metaphor.
      The freedom to improvise is earned when you are sure of the ground on which you stand.
      Thanks for a thought-provoking comment!

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  10. I am so enjoying this months NOW Leadership Carnival. http://geronimocoachingnow.com/2010/11/11/now-leadership-carnival-november-2010/

    First Mark Palmer’s references to a wonderful Canadian, Margaret Atwood and now yours with the sublime late Oscar. How devine!

    After my own metaphor of the labyrinth of leadership, I imagine the Pied Piper playing a Jazz tune as he makes his way through the paths to the left and the right with the “children” following him. This time leading them and not helping them to get lost.

    Lovely post Gwyn.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thank you Roberta! I’m so glad you came by.

      Thinking about it more, Leadership as jazz paints the picture for me of beginning in the centre and branching out, while leadership as a labyrinth leads me to imagine beginning at the edges and working inward, gathering new knowledge along the way. Either way it involves change and risk and often going to unknown and untested places.

      Thanks for your comment! It is a pleasure to be included in the NOW leadership carnival along side you and other people whose thoughts stimulate my own. 🙂

      • Gywn,

        You are so right – Jazz seems to flow outward while the labyrinth metaphor is inward. And isn’t leadership about both (particularly of discovery) … an inward journey and an outward exploration? I never see it as one or the other but two sides of the same coin and both being necessary.

        I so agree with you about the privilege of being a part of the NOW Leadership Carnival and the opportunity to collaborate on our ideas.


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