Authentic leadership lessons from the world of jazz

Jazz musician

A game of workplace bingo will surface the oft used trope “authentic leadership.” It’s a phrase bandied around in leadership circles and in HR teams. We mouth the words and espouse the need for our key employees to lead authentically. But be honest. Don’t we all struggle to really know how to do this? Happily the world of the jazz musician has something to teach the aspiring authentic leader.

Jazz improvisation

The principles for the world of jazz improvisation can help us to embrace the dynamism, messiness and ambiguity of leading authentically. Jazz musicians have long used the principles of improvisation, honed through centuries of comedy, music and theatre, to create a compelling performance. The art of  improvising performing and executing the music, without knowing the precise steps or the exact outcome, is at the heart of doing jazz music.

Transformational leadership

Our previous models of leadership, including the transformational approach still widely practiced today in corporations, are much more like playing classical music. For example, the transformational leader is akin to the conductor; role modelling corporate behaviours, directing with their baton, enabling a shared vision and building team trust. The music is composed, rehearsed and executed within a defined set of leadership behaviours. Following the musical score, composed as part of the planning cycle, is part of the process.

Leading authentically

In contrast, 21st century authentic leadership is like playing jazz music. Jazz is the product of group creativity, interaction, and collaboration. In jazz, the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing a composition the same way twice. Much will depend on the performer’s mood or emotions and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience. A jazz musician may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will.

And why not? After all, human beings come with a unique set of experiences, backgrounds, traits, preferences and emotions.

Let’s pause there a moment. I can hear you screaming from the stalls or the balcony right now  – how can we run a successful business with leaders operating in this manner? We surely need them to operate consistently against a model we can understand and measure?

Leadership development

Well, that’s actually what we teach them to do with traditional leadership development.

Many businesses have a prescribed set of leadership behaviours and values. We expect each leader to neatly slot into the company’s leadership mould and to play the score that’s been written. There is of course room for some violins, and some trombones, the timpani and the bassoon, but they all follow the score. The result is there to see at work. People feel uncomfortable. A Malala wedged and pressed into a Mark shaped hole. Leaders trip over each other, bumping egos with the resulting misunderstandings, leaving  a cacophony in its wake.

To truly lead authentically, instead we can equip leaders with the freedom to improvise and to play their own tune. Perhaps widen the more expansive melody the organisation wants to produce.

The starting point for jazz improvisation is to recognize each person’s true song – the tune that only they can make. Add to that the skill of psychological flexibility. Learn to unhook from the thoughts and emotions that pull us around when someone or something doesn’t fit the music in our head. Approach the task of equipping leaders for today with fluidity. Help them to learn to stay in the moment, to really dig deep to deliver work that is meaningful to them and their business. Then the organisational theme tunes are seamless played by all those involved. The skills is not to make rigid behavioural clones of each other (for of course these are generally gendered and culturally limited clones). Instead, it is to teach people the psychological flexibility to lead as themselves, like a many faceted diamond that shines in all directions.

Principles of jazz improvisation for authentic leadership

As you would expect, there are no hard and fast rules to jazz improvisation. However there are some principles. These provide us with a very different lens on the process of leading ourselves, our teams and our organisation authentically.

         Be prepared/ Warm up – even though there is no rehearsal as such, actors do practice! Train and internalize the processes of psychological flexibility, in the same way that jazz improvisers learn scales. Prepare your minds.

·         Persist in the game – be willing to fail and get back up again/ carry on. As they often don’t know what’s coming up next, performers may get knocked off balance. Therefore they must be open to take risks, and not be afraid of failure. Be willing to make mistakes and learn /adapt.

·         Stay in the moment- in improv it’s happening NOW. You need to act in the now and not get hung up on what is around the corner. Or what could happen next.

·         Shut up and listen– improv is all about hearing what others are offering and building off of it. Actively open your mind to deeply listen.

·         Leap in and take action – don’t just talk about doing it, do it! Use what’s important to you to make specific choices and allow others to respond to and build off your offers.

·         Minimal structures and maximal authority – improv is a loosely structured activity co-ordinated around a task. With patterns that signpost changes throughout. Accept that not everything is within your control and don’t stress over it.

·         Errors as a source of learning – in Improv there are no mistakes or bad ideas, there are only interesting choices – everything that happens is an opportunity.

·         Alternate between soloing and supporting – we’re all in this together. No one person is responsible for the success or failure of a scene –  it succeeds or not based on our ability to work together. This requires us to walk alongside other people, supporting individuals to make strong choices. As a group, focus on solutions- focus on moving a scene forward.

And finally

The final principle is perhaps the most important, for with out it, authentic leadership remains out of reach:

Accept the gift – accept everything that happens as an offer, appreciative, as a gift – build off whatever is given – it is a powerful attitude of affirmation to another person. It gives courage and inspires trust, hope and excitement in working together.

When we can lead authentically and accept the gift of the other person, their experience and the situation, we are no longer threatened by what has happened or may still happen in the future. We can wade into the swamp of authentic leadership with two feet and embrace the here and now – for who knows what music tomorrow will bring?

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