In 1990, then-BCG CEO John Clarkeson wrote about leadership: “The winning organization of the future will look more like a collection of jazz ensembles. Leaders will be in the flow, not remote; they will not be able to rely on exclusive decision-making authority; they will use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. The distinctions between composer/conductor/performer are eroding.”

Clarkeson’s vision has proven extraordinarily relevant in today’s fast-evolving and unpredictable business environment, where traditional command and control leadership is neither feasible nor effective.

The idea of “jazz leadership” has been adopted in different ways by an increasing number of companies. It has informed and become an integral part of a number of currently popular managerial concepts, including adaptive strategy, ambidextrous leadership, agile, scrum and holacracy.

The idea of jazz leadership

Jazz band leaders’ ability to coordinate a group of performers that act independently, with little explicit direction, but collectively creating a synchronized, cohesive piece of music, may seem like “magic” – but it is based on five essential leadership disciplines:

Mastering decentralized innovation

One of the most distinctive differences between jazz and classical music is the decentralization of the creative process. Jazz improvisations do not take place under the strict direction of a conductor or composer – instead, each player experiments, adjusts and creates.

But several conditions must be in place to unlock this improvisatory ability. They must have sufficient depth of foundational knowledge, such as mastery of melody, rhythm and harmony. They must also have breadth of knowledge, such as exposure to different musicians and genres, so that they can instinctively recombine elements to create new music. Finally, they must constantly see things from alternative perspectives to break free of existing patterns. As Miles Davis, one of the most innovative jazz musicians of his time, said: "Never play the same thing twice."

Autonomy under minimum structure

Jazz musicians are constrained by a few implicit ground rules, but within these they have the freedom to play as they wish. In contrast to the highly explicit and prescriptive scores of classical music, jazz musicians usually follow minimal scripts, which may or may not be written down, and which provide a framework that balances individual expression and collective coordination.

For example, Miles Davis and Bill Evans did not write down a melody when recording their renowned album "Kind of Blue". They told the band members, including the legendary John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, to play with five different scales, recording in a single take a song that lasted more than nine minutes.

Guidance through partially shared leadership

Unlike an orchestra, which has a single powerful conductor, leadership of a jazz band is distributed among all of its members. Jazz bands rely on "shared leadership" whereby each player usually takes turns to play solos and move into the spotlight. But shared leadership has its limits. Many jazz groups also have a single band leader, who is usually also the most respected player. These leaders do not script other players’ performances, instead acting as an “invisible guide” to the rest of the band – mentoring other musicians to help them unlock their potential, and loosely coordinating the performance.

Improvisation upon “mistakes”

In classical music, mistakes are easily identifiable and frowned upon; but in jazz, they are embraced, because “errors” encourage improvisation. Thelonious Monk, who was known for his creative improvisation, was always looking for the "right mistakes" in his music to express the beauty of uncertainty.

For example, while practicing, a player may experiment with seemingly wrong arpeggios over a different chord, to understand what may or may not work when playing live later. As a result of their practice and musical sense, jazz musicians will be confident that they can turn a “mistake” into a productive turn.

Connection through deep communication and tacit understanding

In jazz performance, there is no decision-making centre, and the score, if it exists, offers only a rough framework. Therefore, band members have to communicate with each other continuously while they are playing. In so doing, they can be guided by the melody and rhythm of the music – predicting what the other members of the band will do and adjusting their own performance accordingly. Duke Ellington said: "The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he is a good listener."

Image: Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Jazz leadership in practice

The decentralized leadership approach of jazz musicians can now be observed in many companies, allowing them to break down the barriers between departments and adapt more effectively to unpredictable and changing conditions.

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, wrote in his book "The Open Organization" that when he was drafting the company's vision, he collected and synthesized opinions from employees, a perfect show case of “decentralized innovation” and “improvisation upon mistakes”.

Red Hat's internal governance is based on the same open source principles that inform its business model: "release early and release often", and "adopting the best idea, regardless of where it comes from". The company also uses bulletin boards, community discussion groups, topic lists and instant messaging to help employees communicate and collaborate more efficiently.

A Chinese dumpling chain restaurant called Xijiade shares “co-leadership” and “minimum sufficient structure”. The company is organized as a partnership with a only the minimum core capabilities platform to enable the running of different front-end restaurants.

By doing so, it strikes a perfect balance between the entrepreneurship at the front end, as well as expertise building, and to some extent, some control and supervision at the centre. The company’s core values focus on attributes such as gratefulness, devotion, forgiveness, and the belief that “your personal success lies on others’ success”. The core decision making is by done by voting among all the partners and the key performance indicators are linked with how each employee supports others partners to succeed.

The high-tech materials company Gore has built a non-hierarchical communication network: groups can talk to each other directly without having to go through an intermediary. Bill Gore, the founder, said: "I dreamed of a company that fosters fulfilment and this combined effort is bigger than their mere sum.”

To encourage communication within this “lattice organization”, there are no restrictions to business travel spending, even for new associates, so that they are free to travel to meet and discuss ideas with the right people.

To become a leader, associates must recruit their own team members. Therefore, there are no permanent front-line managers, but instead the company has what it calls "natural leadership". Gore employs a "supporting team" as its equivalent of executive leadership. They shape the company's values, principles and ideas; they help to coordinate and remove internal barriers within the organization; and make sure that processes run smoothly.

In this dynamic age where uncertainty is a new norm, jazz leadership and its magic components encourage innovation, supported autonomy, shared leadership, improvisation, and clear communication. How can jazz leadership guide your organization into the next decade?