What Jazz Teaches Us About Creative Leadership

Julia Donato
Apr 11, 2018 · 4 min read
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I come from a musical family, and I played clarinet as a kid, but I walked away from it in high school. When I was really into it, I remember being ridiculously frustrated by my inability to improvise. I could play the hell out of written music, but I could never, ever master the art of letting go and riffing from nothing…and it drove me NUTS.

That always stuck with me. I always felt like the difference between a “real” musician and a sham like me was that ability to make something up on the spot — it was something I just didn’t have, and as a result, my clarinet spent the better part of a decade shoved in the back of a closet gathering a pretty impressive layer of dust.

But I’m a creative professional now, and I find myself constantly looking for new connections and trying to analyze things to get a better understanding of how they work. So rather than succumb to failure, I decided to lean in and learn something from it.

I thought about the art of creating music from scratch, and how it’s not so different from what we agency creatives do every day. That led me to think about jazz musicians, and what they can teach us about the creative process. And that led me to the great Natalie Nixon.

Natalie Nixon is the Director of the Strategic Design MBA at Philadelphia University, and her TEDx presentation on learning leadership lessons from jazz geniuses is pure, unfiltered awesome.

It turns out that there’s a ton of evidence supporting the use of techniques from jazz geniuses’ jam sessions to create harmony in a professional setting. Organizational improvisation, as it’s called, isn’t new concept — improv troupes have been consulting with C-level execs from big corporations for years, teaching them how to be flexible and think on their feet.

Lots of the theory around this topic comes from Frank J. Barrett, jazz pianist and Professor of Management at the Naval Postgraduate School, who literally wrote the book on the subject. He brings the two seemingly disparate topics together so they collide beautifully into a set of useful skills that just about anyone can use.

Unlearn Bad Habits

Improvisational jazz musicians (and improv actors, too, for that matter) never play exactly the same riff twice. To keep their performances fresh, they shift and pivot and try new things as situations arise; their output depends on the band, the crowd, the night, the venue, the mood.

In professional and personal life, growth is all about shaking things up. That’s innovation. We’re all guilty of falling into the autopilot trap now and then. But if you take the time to analyze your own habits (work or otherwise), you’ll spot the ones that are bringing you down and find ways to break out of them. Challenge your assumptions. Disrupt your norms.

Surrender to Flow

Jazz musicians never overthink their next note. They let their minds do their thing and surrender to creative flow.

Charles Limb is a neurosurgeon who studies creativity, and he’s studied the phenomenon of how the brain operates during improvisation. In what must have been the most beautifully awkward setup, Limb put musicians and rappers in an fMRI machine and asked them to play something from memory, followed by something they made up on the spot.

Limb found that when his subjects switched from playing the memorized diddy to riffing on their own, their brain scans showed significant slow-downs in the areas associated with self-censoring and concern about output. In other words, you can’t let your creative freak flag fly if you’re too worried about what the output will look like.

What that tells me is that it’s high time we shed the burden of expecting perfection from everything we create. Let’s get weird.

Work With Whatcha Got

Jazz musicians don’t stop in the middle of a song when an unexpected note comes from a band member. They roll with it and explore the new direction without expectations about what the outcome needs to sound like. Maybe it’s not what they anticipated…but it’s what they have, and they’ll make the most of it.

I think especially in a job setting, it’s so important to cultivate that “work with it” mindset. It’s so easy to lament the tool you’re using, or the project you’re working on, but it doesn’t do much good. Instead, assume something positive exists within the opportunity as it is and dedicate your efforts toward finding it.

It’s not easy. At all. But if you can master the art of staying positive and finding potential, you’ll be happier, more productive, and more fulfilled even when the going gets tough.

Take Turns

Watch a jazz band play, and you’ll see one musician step forward, belt out a killer solo, and step right back into formation. Nobody steals the spotlight for too long, and nobody plays the supporting role exclusively.

The most effective businesses know that being a good leader means helping others lead, too. There are countless approaches to solving any given problem, and we have to promote autonomy, cultivate leadership, and embrace the unique perspectives that each team member brings to the table.

We all should be a little more interested in finding a great solution and stop worrying about who it came from.

This is a long piece, but the upshot is this: Inspiration and lessons can come from anywhere. Organizational improvisation techniques as learned by jazz geniuses can have a real and substantial impact on the way you operate, whether you’re in the creative field or not.

I suppose I might as well round it out with some advice from Max De Pree, author of Leadership Jazz, who says, “Jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals.”

And, really, who doesn’t want that?

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