The skill great artistic leaders master

One of the things I like about Jazz, kid, is I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?” — Bix Beiderbecke —

In a performance, a number of — hopefully — diverse people with different needs and personalities work together.

But getting to that point is never plain sailing. In my experience, no matter how open, co-operative and respectful the members of the group are, there’s bumps in the road.

Those leading artistic groups know this only too well.

The story goes something like this: a group starts off with great excitement and collective good will. The journey and the destination are warmly embraced. The participants support each other.

Then, as work progresses, the route gets tricky. Egos jostle and tensions grumble to the surface. The fragile relationship between the project’s goals and the individuals’ feelings is put under pressure.

Just like a good parent, the leader must push the group to face and overcome their barriers. To fulfil their potential. To fly.

This is precisely the stage when the leader’s own capability is called into question by the group. Her responsibility for their collective endeavour becomes a point of (often fierce) scrutiny as something like Newton’s Third Law comes into effect — for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.

If she’s doing her job well, the leader treads a tightrope.

On the one hand, she enables individual participants to bloom under her care; she creates the right circumstances for individual skills and abilities to flourish; she nurtures experiments and applauds risk.

At the same time, she’s all too aware of the destination (usually, a public showing) when the performance itself must come together. Coherently. More than the sum of parts is what’s required.

A good analogy for this balancing act between individuality and co-operation, I always think, is jazz.

In jazz you have the melody, but you also have the solo. The whole band knows the melody and its harmonies; they’re the bits the audience goes out humming. Within that structure however — that co-operation — the individual has a chance to shine.

That’s the solo.

In the solo the individual often improvises. She takes daring detours and expresses herself with unique colour. One by one the performers step forward and take their turn.

But they do so as members of a team.

This is what great artistic leaders know. And its an awareness they cultivate.

Any team performance, as an act of creation, beautifully embodies contradictions: form and chaos, script and improvisation, melody and solo.

A beautiful and risky act of balance.

Do you have experience leading artistic teams? I’d love to know your thoughts.