3 Qualities Jazz Musicians Have That Business Leaders Should Adopt

March 31, 2015 Aubrey Chapnick

In a preceding post, I shared a story of my favorite artist Frank Sinatra that highlighted three ways that business leaders can drive high performance and employee engagement by changing the way they personally think about and communicate their organization's vision and mission. If you didn't catch it, have a look here . In this piece, I want to build off the ideas that I previously presented and explore the three qualities of jazz musicians that if adopted by today’s business leaders, could assist them in building a more effective, vibrant and grooving leadership culture throughout their organization.

Quality Number One: Jazz musicians have mastered the art of active listening.

To be a great jazz musician, one must first be an incredible listener. Whether on the bandstand or practicing at home, a jazz musician’s ability to activity listen and pick up on intimate musical complexities often dictates his/her success. Jazz is heavily focused on improvisation, without impeccable active listening skills, a jazz musician would surely get lost in a song’s harmony and trip over his/her fellow band members.

Business leaders often cite lack of active listening skills as a major systemic problem that inhibits their organization’s success. By focusing on improving active listening skills, business leaders will be better able to understand their teammate’s positions on difficult issues, engage their direct reports in a more effective way, and create an organizational culture that values active listening as a strategic business success factor to drive things forward. Jazz musicians understand the critical importance of active listening and so must every business leader.

Quality Number Two: Jazz musicians are technical experts that can apply their knowledge in ambiguous situations and do so in creative ways.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best jazz musicians are geniuses. Having studied jazz theory myself for a number of years, I know full well that the amount of information one needs to know in order to play jazz songs to their fullest extent is absolutely mind-boggling. To put things in perspective, imagine trying to complete a complicated discounted cash flow analysis without an excel spreadsheet. This is what trying to play John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in the right tempo feels like. Jazz musicians understand every aspect of their craft and can draw from their knowledge with stunning ease.

In order to be an effective business leader, one must display a high level of technical proficiency in many functional capacities and apply these skills across an organization’s business units in creative ways. These are the types of similar situations that jazz musicians live for and if business leaders could start to approach their own roles in such a fashion, they will be better able to meet organizational objectives and inspire others to approach problematic situations from different perspectives. 

Quality Number 3: Jazz musicians take risks.

On August 17, 1959, the legendary trumpet player Miles Davis released what is now regarded as one of the most important Jazz records of all time -Kind of Blue. Although this album is now revered as a timeless artistic masterpiece, the musical foundation that the record was built on was completely against the grain of mainstream Jazz during the late 1950s. Miles took an enormous artistic risk when he released the album and put his entire artistic career in jeopardy. Luckily for Miles, his foray into uncharted musical territory was a great success that catapulted all those on the record to super-stardom. In addition to the album’s commercial success, the approach that Miles took to write the record went on to redefine the way that Jazz would be composed up until present times.

In today’s hyper competitive business environment, relying on a safe and conventional strategy is the equivalent to writing one’s own organizational eulogy. Although the notion of taking calculated business risks is widely understood by most business leaders, many of them may not be compelled enough to step up and do what is necessary in order to move their business forward. Now more than ever, if leaders do not embrace and champion a healthy cultural appetite of calculated business risk taking, it is almost certain that the companies that they lead will stagnate and lose their competitive edge.  Although it may seem scary at first, taking calculated risks is crucial to the longevity of every company. Just remember that if Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg were too scared to take the necessary risks to ensure their success, we wouldn’t have two companies whose combined market capitalization equals almost a trillion dollars.   


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