Leadership…And All That Jazz

This week, I’m offering you a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.  Not to be immodest but it is one of my favourites. I love jazz and I think it a perfect metaphor for leadership. I  hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.  


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), that 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 vision and purpose.  And, how far afield we are willing to go to realize the vision and fulfill the purpose is usually dependent on a number of  things like:

How much we know

The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about the immediate environment, our markets, our politics and the 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 and future vision 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.

That’s what I think anyway. 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, Leadership Style, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Leadership…And All That Jazz

  1. Alex Jones

    Rather like a captain and his crew wisdom counts for a lot, knowing to keep a ship on course, but have the wisdom of fighting and adapting to the sea storms.

  2. Pingback: Leadership…And All That Jazz | BOH Leadership Articles | Scoop.it

  3. Terry Thomas

    HI Gwyn
    While taking a study break, I re-read some of your posts and readers’ astute comments, such as Alex’s. I am reminded that life is a mosaic of expert advice, public opinion, and personal experiences. Also, we can’t forget the spirit and the soul. Rather than advice or opinion,I want to offer prayers from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. Hope you will be enjoying beautiful melodies soon and can come to the Gulf Coast to “jazz it up!” Stay Safe!

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