Why do we organize? When I pose this question to executives, their answers are understandably predictable: to accomplish an objective, to make use of all available resources, to maximize efficiencies. While all of these are correct, there is a simpler, more elegant response. We organize because we can’t do it alone. When understood at its deepest level, this should be a humbling revelation. If you can accomplish an objective alone, do it alone. It will be faster and less complicated. But if you can’t do it alone, then recognize that you are dependent upon others, and how well you work together will make all the difference in the world to your success.
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The same holds true for a great jazz ensemble. Any one of the musicians could play unaccompanied and create a memorable experience for an audience, but it wouldn’t be the same as when they’re playing with other talented artists. Why do jazz musicians organize? Because what they want to create can’t be created alone.
The great part about using jazz as an organizing metaphor is the uniqueness of this art form. Unlike classical orchestras, rock bands, or other musical configurations, jazz ensembles rely on shared leadership, collaboration, improvisation, and a heartfelt humility that honors every individual’s contribution. And the results are more than memorable.
I once asked a jazz musician what it’s like when the band has just finished a song and gotten really out there—so far out there that they didn’t know if they could find their way back to a smooth finish, in real time, together. What is on the mind of the performer after taking such a journey, after having pushed the envelope of creativity and cooperation? The musician’s response: “How soon can we do that again?” Now, ask yourself how often you walk out of a meeting in your organization thinking, “How soon can we do that again?” What is it about the way jazz musicians work together that makes their “meetings” so exciting?
Here are four of the most pertinent leadership lessons from jazz I have collected over the years:
1. Taking Turns Leading
Successful leaders give others the opportunity to lead, too. In a jazz performance, the idea of shared leadership includes not only solos by each musician, but also more subtle leadership moments. John Patitucci, a great American bass player, talks about “leading” by using rests to create space for other members of the band to fill. We’ve all been a part of projects in which one person dominates all aspects of its direction and execution. Their leadership development goal should be to give it a rest and create the space for others to lead, too.
2. Really Listening
This may sound simplistic—because it is. It is a simpler truth. Great performances require collaboration and great leaders know that collaboration requires an extremely well-developed capacity to really listen—and hear—what others are saying. In a jazz quintet, that means listening to four other people who are communicating with you all at the same time. It’s for this reason alone that I consider jazz musicians to be more evolved than the rest of us. Our work at meetings is far easier. Generally, we only need to listen to one person at a time. Listening, particularly active listening, is simultaneously a skill, an art form and, most importantly, a discipline.
3. Planning to Not Have a Plan
Improvisation in jazz means a song will never be played the same way twice. Contrast that with well-intended but sometimes counterproductive management practices that try to ensure a product or service is always offered the same way. Wisdom lies in the balance. Jazz artists innovate within structures and forms that are both predictable and flexible. The same should be true for organizations. Fear, sometimes, is the greatest stumbling block to this kind of free thinking. Fear of the unknown, fear of failing, fear of looking foolish. Miles Davis once said: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” In jazz, a note is neither right nor wrong. It’s the note that follows that will make the difference. For executives, that means creating a culture that encourages both experimentation and continuous learning.
4. Parking Your Ego at the Door
Humility means that you know others can have great ideas too—and you give them the opportunity to contribute. This, of course, can lead to conflict when there are differing visions of what is to be created. In jazz, these conflicts are resolved in real time, using the guiding principle “serve the music.” Which chord change or which note will best serve the performance that is unfolding? The same applies to organizations. Can everyone refrain from advancing their own personal agenda to create together something bigger and better for the project and the organization?
Jazz offers us many of the elements we need for leading and managing successful projects and organizations—from creating space for others to lead to really listening to ideas of others, from allowing experimentation in a learning environment to ultimately recognizing that we can’t do it alone. If we can create these kinds of work practices in organizations, there might be a chance we can leave meetings with the same enthusiasm as jazz musicians leaving a jazz session. How soon can we do that again?
Grant Ackerman is a member of the Executive Education faculty at Columbia Business School and faculty director of the Executive Development Program. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.