Playing Out of Sync: What jazz teaches business leaders

Andy Lockett, Warwick Business school, Council on Business & Society on jazz and leadership

Dean-Prof Andy Lockett

Andy Lockett, Dean of Warwick Business School and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship together with Deniz Ucbasaran, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School, strike a high note with their research into how business leaders can learn from jazz. 

Adapted from an original piece appearing in Core Insights, Warwick Business School, March 2019

Deniz Ucbasaran, entrepreneurship, Council on Business & Society

Prof Deniz Ucbasaran

Ever heard the metaphor of the leader as an orchestra conductor? Chances are that if you’re in the working world you have. Its roots go back to the management guru Peter Drucker who, in a  1988 Harvard Business Review issue, first made the comparison that the business world has been exploring ever since – from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander and his book on leadership and creativity, to John Kao, innovation expert and former Harvard faculty, with his book Jamming, a refrain on improvisation and creativity.

In tune with this is new research Leading Entrepreneurial Teams: Insights from Jazz carried out by Warwick Business School’s Deniz Ucbasaran, Professor of Entrepreneurship, and Andy Lockett, Dean and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, and the fruit of their research into famous jazz musicians and the insights they could provide for entrepreneurial team leaders.

Striking chords

Council on Business & society on the benefits of jazz in leadershipWhy go for jazz? For a start, assert Ucbasaran and Lockett, jazz bands are synonymous with creativity, improvisation and innovation – all essential ingredients for entrepreneurship. Moreover, jazz groups and their members often operate in uncertain and dynamic environments characterised by unpredictable and rapid change – much like those of the entrepreneur. And yet, through collective endeavour many famous jazz bands find their own structure and harmony, despite apparent disorder, and become profitable enterprises – both creatively and commercially.

Initially, Deniz Ucbasaran and Andy Lockett carried out a series of interviews with celebrated names in the jazz world – among them Wynton Marsalis, Jean Toussaint, and the trumpeter Sean Jones. Further research focused on three names that repeatedly came up in their interviews – the jazz trinity Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Art Blakey – and notably the way that these jazz greats created and managed their musical enterprises. In particular, the research focused on three specific areas of leadership activity: team formation, team co-ordination and team turnover.

A number of strong similarities soon became apparent between the three greats, especially in the way the band leaders used to constitute their diverse teams of talent. In particular, they looked for musicians with a different and unique sound or style that would improve the overall sound of the band – this uniqueness having as much to do with personality as technical proficiency. In a work context, if we take organisations and how they tackle diversity, the conventional approach is to think in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural background and functional skills. But the evidence from the jazz world suggests that team leaders could attempt a wider concept of diversity when building their teams that takes into account cognitive and personality difference as desirable team attributes. This can be especially relevant for ventures and teams where high levels of creativity are needed – for instance in the media industry, biotech, or high-tech start-ups.

Conflicting notes

Team management learnt from Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and BlakeyHowever, highly disparate teams, many different personalities, and high levels of creativity is a spicy recipe for group conflict. It was not surprising then that there was plenty of dysfunctional conflict and disruptive and destructive clashes of egos and personalities in the jazz ensembles.

Traditional team leadership theory suggests that to achieve the best team performance a leader should foster conflict that promotes productive behaviours – functional conflict – while minimising and eradicating dysfunctional and destructive conflict. But this is difficult when the sources of productive and destructive conflict are the same – that is, differences in personality and thinking.

How does this chime with the past jazz greats? Well, it didn’t seem to bother the likes of Ellington, Davis and Blakey. Their attitude was “the music comes first”. As such, discordant behaviour was tolerated on a journey towards overall harmony. The bad behaviour of individuals, whether turning up late for practice, or stepping out of a performance to eat a previously ordered steak, was seen as a small price to pay for the moments of musical genius, when everything came together.

Altogether, according to Ucbasaran and Lockett, dysfunctional behaviour appears to go hand in hand with the creative process in these highly disparate teams. Instead of trying to muffle the squabbling, team leaders obtain better results by deploying strategies to benefit from the creative upside of tension and conflict, all the while accepting the problems that arise from “bad” behaviour. In the jazz context, if musicians were late for practice, for example, Duke Ellington did not get angry – he just started without them. What kept these leaders’ teams together, however, was an overarching higher goal: to create the best music.

Playing out of sync

Innovative teams use players who play out of synchIt is generally assumed that teams must co-ordinate their behaviour and action to achieve a positive outcome, with the team leader assuming a number of different roles – mentor, model, coach, supervisor, for example – when helping the team achieve its objectives. Indeed, 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 it was different for the approach that Ellington, Davis and Blakey adopted. Informal was the key note and direct, explicit instructions were kept to a minimum. In this sense, the jazz leaders acted more as facilitators, empowering the musicians to collectively co-ordinate their behaviour and action to produce the desired outcome. As Ucbasaran and Lockett note, Davis discouraged band members from rehearsing in case it led to musical clichés from over-practice. Similarly, he often asked his musicians to play a piece in an unusual key, so they did not rely on well-established fingering patterns.

However, this didn’t mean that the performers were left to their own devices. The leader created a framework within which team members could work. To quote Ucbasaran and Lockett “this framework balanced guidance and structure with freedom to explore, express and make mistakes”. Ellington, for example, often composed small musical phrases or musical triggers for each musician. This ensured a basic level of co-ordination and pointed them in the right direction, while still providing freedom for the band member to ad-lib and improvise. It is interesting to note that innovation and creativity often go hand-in-hand with failure and disappointment. The courage to try things out inevitably leads to some team members succeeding, others failing. For Profs. Deniz Ucbasaran and Andy Lockett, team leaders should therefore create an environment in which their team members feel safe to experiment, to improvise and take risks. “Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles Davis is credited as saying.

On and off the bandwagon

The third aspect of leadership covered by their research is that of managing team turnover – people joining and leaving the team. Here again, the general idea in management is that retention of talent is a preferred factor in order to guarantee stability and longer-term results. Not so for the jazz greats: in the jazz ensembles studied, musicians joined and left on a regular basis. Despite the resulting loss of knowledge and skills, this was seen in a positive light, partly because of the benefits of on-boarding new knowledge, ideas and creativity when new members joined. Moreover, a common reason for jazz musicians leaving was that they felt sufficiently qualified to go and run another band. The three great band leaders were understanding about this, particularly as it was a process they had also been through themselves and in some cases, in particular with Blakey, they actively encouraged and coached team members to become leaders. In other cases, team members left only to return at a later date, and it is here that Ucbasaran and Lockett compare this feature to organisational techniques such as rotational assignments that encourage individuals to gain new skills and knowledge elsewhere and bring them back to the group. It could also be seen as similar to the sabbatical, taking time away from the group and returning with renewed vigour and a fresh perspective on their work.

Ending on a high note: the keys to entrepreneurial leadership

The keys to entrepreneurial leadership, Council on Business & >Society, Warwick Business SchoolAs the jazz greats 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, Ucbasaran and Lockett’s study of these jazz leaders offers some useful lessons for modern-day entrepreneurial leaders, especially where innovation and creativity are cardinal.

  • Accept that things can go wrong: jazz leaders embraced mistakes as part of the process of creating something new and valuable
  • Create room for experimentation and be forgiving of failure en route to success
  • Maintain a positive relationship with departing talent: in this way, team leaders expand their network where they might find new talent. And there’s always the possibility that the departing team member might one day return.
  • Tolerate and embrace discordant behaviour
  • Promote individualism and egalitarianism
  • Create the space for team members to express themselves and experiment
  • Maximise creativity by minimising authoritarianism and rigidness, and value ambiguity over clarity
  • Restrain from micro-management though create frameworks, triggers and cues, set direction, and provide inspiration
  • Break up routines, stimulate and provoke new responses by proposing new (and uncomfortable) situations.

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.”

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