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Dan Hammond


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Leadership lessons from the world of jazz


Dan Hammond captures the leadership lessons from a seminar by Craig Scott from the Sydney Conservatorium.

"There's probably no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble; individual freedom but with responsibility to the group."

Michelle Obama made this statement earlier this year hosting a White House music series. Is it possible that a jazz ensemble also provides us with an unrivalled example of leadership? This idea was explored recently by Craig Scott, head of the Jazz Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, at a seminar at the Centre for Leadership in Sydney, Australia. Craig drew parallels – some quite surprising – between leadership and what can appear to be the eclectic world of the jazz group.

"Organisations in which leadership can pass freely between leaders with, as in music, clarity of who is currently in that role, can execute far more effectively than those with rigid hierarchies."

Any fears that this was going to be a rehash of the old metaphor of the 'conductor as leader' were quickly dispensed with by the witty and modest Craig Scott and his trio who started, not by speaking, but by playing. This was interesting in itself: how many of us, when asked to speak on a subject, choose first to show it in action? Craig went on to explore three parallels of leadership and jazz: common language, the role of the leader and purpose.

Common language

Craig explained that the piece they started with was a blues, 12 bars, same chords, round and round 'until the audience goes home'. This chord sequence, which has been in use for over 100 years, form part of the common language of music: harmony. "We can express ourselves over those chord changes so that, within the same framework, things can sound quite different." However, if the musicians step outside that framework, "we are stepping outside the boundaries of our language" he added. "I would say that in terms of achieving a common goal, a shared understanding of the language is... the fundamental thing."

Leaders are often faced with the challenge of finding the right people in the team for the job in hand. Craig said of his musicians, "I picked them because I know they know the language and I trust them to use that language to achieve a common purpose." He said that they had an intrinsic interest and a learned ability to perform as he wanted them to.

How can this be applied in the corporate world? It is possible for leaders at all levels of an organisation to share a common language? As in music, this can cover key elements of what needs to be done every day including alignment with purpose, objective setting, decision-making, situation assessment, planning, briefing etc. By sharing a common language on these frameworks, leaders are able to improvise to achieve higher goals while being in complete alignment with the purpose. Imagine a world where, like Craig, you could hire people who knew your shared language and who could be trusted to use it in achieving the organisation’s goals.

Leadership changes hands

Craig commented that he had read LIW’s recent whitepaper on Organisational Leadership ArchitectureTM: why organisations need leadership more than leaders and that he was interested to note that the military model of leadership very closely matches that of music. In the military, leadership will pass to the person who is best to lead in that situation in order to serve the purpose. So it is in music: the person playing the solo leads the band.

What is the relevance to the corporate world? Isn’t the sales person often the best to lead a client engagement as they have the best knowledge of the situation? Organisations in which leadership can pass freely between leaders with, as in music, clarity of who is currently in that role, can execute far more effectively than those with rigid hierarchies.

Exploring without subverting the purpose

The purpose of the jazz ensemble, according to Craig, is to give a cohesive, resonant, memorable performance for the audience. Different groups will have different interpretations, or visions, of how they will achieve this, even though they are speaking the same language.

"Complete clarity of vision will help to ensure a harmonious result: harnessing individual creativity in alignment with the goal."

Craig played two short clips to illustrate the point. The first, by a trumpeter called Bix Beiderbecke in a recording from around 1920 was traditional jazz, something that anyone would recognise and be able to tap their foot to. The second clip was separated from the first by 60 years and a musical gulf: Sun Ra was an experimental band leader and the recording was esoteric to say the least! Despite these apparent differences, Craig assured the audience, they were speaking the same language but with a different vision of how they would serve the purpose. The trio demonstrated what can happen if musicians in a group are serving different purposes by each playing in a different style: the piano like Bix Beiderbecke, the saxophone like Sun Ra. Horrible!

In the corporate world, complete clarity of vision will help to ensure a harmonious result: harnessing individual creativity in alignment with the goal. This is of particular relevance where remote leadership is needed: purpose is like the invisible railroad tracks that everyone follows, however far away they are.

The three Cs

Finally, Craig surprised his fellow musicians by ‘briefing’ them on a new piece of music. In about 90 seconds, using a common language, he was able to get them to play beautifully together. This demonstration brought all the strands of his talk together and challenged the corporate leaders in the room with some key questions:

  • Clarity: Can we build an organisation where the purpose is as clear to everyone as it is to the members of a jazz ensemble?

  • Climate: Can we enable a culture in which individual creativity can flourish and in which leadership changes hands fluidly in order to best serve the purpose?

  • Competence: Can we learn and share a common language that will enable us to make rapid decisions and to execute effectively as circumstances change?

Through Craig Scott's thought-provoking words and music, the audience learnt that, in the world of jazz, these conditions for success are well established. Surprising as it is, the jazz ensemble could be a model for sustainable success in business.

Dan Hammond is a managing consultant at global leadership consultancy, LIW. This article first appeared on

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Dan Hammond

Managing Consultant

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