Music and leadership…blog #95

Charleville House, Ireland

I love music. 

Growing up, our home was always filled with music coming from the record player or piano as one of us kids practiced scales and scores for upcoming lessons and exams (my brother was the “star pupil” in our home). We loved listening to both our parents tickling the ivories; mom was an amazing sight reader, while dad just heard the song and played-by-ear.

While piano was the bane of my existence, I found my stride playing the clarinet in the high school concert band, and singing in various groups. If not for music, there was simply no point in going to school! Years later, as our kids reached high school, Christmas and year-end concerts were such a highlight as these dedicated students and gifted teachers produced some of the best jazz, choral, and orchestral music to packed crowds of proud family and friends. The music continued to ring out in our home as our son applied his musical passion to jam sessions with his friends, preparing for whatever gigs they could line up. Music was, and is, core to our lives.

Needless to say, when I came across the book Yes to the Mess; surprising leadership lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett, I was intrigued. As both a jazz musician and a Professor of Management and Global Public Policy, Barrett understands the meaning of improvisation. He proposes, “What we need to add to our list of managerial skills is improvisation—the art of adjusting, flexibly adapting, learning through trial-and-error initiatives, inventing ad hoc responses, and discovering as you go.”

Wikipedia describes improvisation as “a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation.” So how can this apply to leadership, especially in light of the new team configurations leaders are now called on to lead? Ask most leaders today, and they will tell you there is no script for what they are currently facing, similar to a group of musicians getting together to create music. However, the success of great improvisation, whether in music or leadership, depends on a key ingredient, the foundational skill of the players. Those hours of practicing scales, those hours of honing leadership competencies, are the things great improvisation is made of.

However, for many leaders, working without a script can be somewhat daunting. I’m enjoying revisiting complexity theory. We can see through this theory how organizations become more sustainable, adaptive, and innovative…and I love that it recognizes how a combination of chaos and order produces the most creative outcomes. A leader and team can co-create a vision around their shared values, culture, and belonging; however, the path to realizing that vision may not be that straight. The plan may change and take some side trails along the way, and you can be sure obstacles (like a pandemic) will demand a detour. Still, if the goal or vision is clear, a leader and their team can improvise and end up where they want to go.

Bottom line? Embrace the chaos, focus on your people and your shared vision, and listen for the music.

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