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The Jazz Principle: Why Good Leaders Celebrate Uncertainty


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A good manager is in some ways like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. But a truly good manager may well be more like the leader of a jazz combo.

Granted, the parallels between managing an organization and conducting a symphony can be striking: The symphony orchestra is a large enterprise consisting of people with a wide variety of skills. They must play in perfect harmony upon a public stage. Talent must be managed, cajoled and kept in check. And the orchestra takes its cues in obvious ways and subtle ways from the conductor.

If the work to be performed is an overly familiar one, like say, the hundredth performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the members of the orchestra are liable to fall into a sense of routine. It becomes the conductor’s job to re-inspire that passion. All that he or she does serves to remind those he leads of the inner meaning of the work, and to make it come newly alive with each performance.

Yet some top management experts, notably Max De Pree, have come to believe that the role of a manager of an organization could better be likened to a leader of a jazz ensemble. There is more improvisation. There is uncertainty. There is surprise—surprise that is embraced and exploited by the members of the ensemble.

Creativity and Spontaneity as “Heroic" Traits

Improvisation is the ultimate human (ie, heroic) endowment … Flexibility or the ability to swing (or to perform with grace under pressure) is the key to that unique competence which generates the self-reliance and thus the charisma of the hero. –Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues [hat tip to Robert G. O’Meally, Columbia University professor and founder of its Center for Jazz Studies]
During the performance of a tightly scored symphony, any surprise would either be a failure or would lead to one. In jazz, surprise is serendipity. Each member is free to trade in surprise, to test it, and to allow others to build on it.

Of course, this requires accommodating certain and even frequent failure within the process of experimentation.

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