As a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum I am the first to admit that the studies of “leadership” are often nothing more than gross over-simplifications. Countless books have been dedicated to attempts to construct a periodic table of “leadership” elements, such as charisma and eloquence, yet most often these studies simply reflect the individual prejudices and cultural biases of the authors rather than expose some universal and hegemonic truth.

A true study of the subject then must start from the idea that leadership can only be understood as relational and contextual. In other words, leadership must be seen as a manifestation of a role within a series of complex relationships formed in a specific context. Rather than seek to comprehend how the collective is a function of the individual, more complete studies of leadership endeavour to do the opposite.

An example of what I am referring to was on display recently when the World Economic Forum New York, in conjunction of the Columbia University’s School of the Arts, hosted the world-class trombonist and Columbia professor Chris Washburne and his band SYOTOS for an evening of music interspersed with reflections on leadership within the context of a jazz group.

Chris is compelling as a leader on several levels. First and foremost, he is recognized as a world-class trombonist, having played alongside such greats as Tito Puente, Ruben Blades and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Secondly, Chris is also a student, teacher and documentarian of jazz, with a number of publications to his name. Thirdly, Chris’s accomplishments are accompanied by a compelling personal story: at one point a rare form of skin cancer in his face was diagnosed and he was told that he might never play again. Though the odds were against him, Chris continues to delight audiences around the world with his eclectic and soulful sounds.

When asked to reflect on leadership, Chris has many best practices which deserve to be entertained by those who also seek to extract maximum value and creativity from high-performing teams. For our purposes, I would like to focus on his ideas related to team, vision, mistakes and trust.

Team: Chris doesn’t hire the most talented jazz musicians only to limit them to creating a platform from which he can expose his own talents. Chris’s goal is to showcase his musicians and enable their creativity, thus maximizing the experience of the audience. Each musician in the ensemble, including Chris, simultaneously collaborates and competes: they collaborate in that their unspoken asynchronous connection creates the conditions from which each can realize his improvisation; they compete in that each individual performance challenges the other players to raise their games. To perform effectively, each member must have the selflessness to serve the others and the confidence to step up and shine at the appropriate moment.

Vision: As a leader of the group, Chris begins every performance with the goal of creating something greater than he alone can imagine and orchestrate. Chris begins each number by setting the direction and then trusting that his fellow players will deliver. Courageous leadership in this context then is not an individual courage but the courage to trust others.

Errors: A system based on this distributed model of control will sometimes lead to errors as there is no centralized power structure managing all of the elements to reduce risk. Yet in the trust-based system each musician is keenly aware when he has made a mistake and uses that information to inform his next decision.

To demonstrate his point, Chris recounts how a young Herbie Hancock came to distinguish himself playing keyboard for Miles Davis. In their first show together Hancock hit a chord so ugly that he anticipated disrupting Davis’s solo trumpet performance. Instead, Davis was so in sync with his pianist that he was able to complement with the perfect note and salvage the lost chord and hence the performance. Leadership in this case was demonstrated not in expressing control and reducing spontaneity but enabling those same forces and facilitating the recovery. Mistakes in a jazz band thus are not seen as the opposite of success but instead as an inherent part of it. Or, to put it in Miles Davis’s own words: “Don’t fear mistakes. There are none.”

The goal of any jazz performance is to maximize the experience of the audience by providing the best musicianship possible. A top-down structure, though reducing the margin for error, limits the performances’ potential by enabling the power of one instead of empowering the larger group. The top-down structure must then be replaced by a de-centralized/distributed model. In this model true discipline, as the saying goes, comes through liberty, since even the most stand-out individual performance is never fully detached from the collective facilitating it.

Most importantly, the irreplaceable value that enables the flow of jazz as demonstrated by Chris Washburne is the value of trust. Trust is the instrument whose frequency is so high as to make it almost undetectable by audiences, yet whose force is enough to bind high-performing individuals into an in-sync collective, the product of which is art whose value ultimately surpasses the sum of all its parts.

Author: Matthew Carpenter-Arevalo is a Global Leadership Fellow and Senior Manager with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community. 

Pictured: Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon (L), U.S. President George W. Bush (C) and Canada’s Stephen Harper watch a jazz band in New Orleans, Louisiana. REUTERS/Chris Wattie