The Jazz Leadership Model

Everything I know about leadership, I learned from Miles Davis.  Well that’s a bit of hyperbole, but truer than it might look at first glance.

What are some of the qualities of Great Leaders.  They:

  1. Build and inspire great teams
  2. Set a vision
  3. Create a lasting body of work
  4. Take risks
  5. Innovate
  6. Inspire

Certainly we could list many more.

So how does this apply to Miles Davis.

Innovation.  Miles was the creator of or one of the main artists in at least three of jazz’ most important genres or schools.  As Charlie Parker’s collaborator he was arguably the last great trumpeter of the be-bop era.  Then Miles as a composer and band leader created the Cool Jazz Movement.  Ten years later, he introduced electric instruments with cacophonous effect to create the earliest jazz-fusion.  Clearly he had a vision well beyond that which was right in front of him.  Never content to rest on laurels, he reinvented himself and the music over and over again.  He took risks and as a trail blazer, alienated fans who wanted to hear the old music.  His body of compositions are a list of standards, from So What to MileStones to Solar or Bitches Brew.  His version of standards like Summertime, My Funny Valentine are the ones most jazz fans think of as definitive.

What may get overlooked is the way Miles built teams, communicated with and inspired generations of other musicians.  The list of players who went from unheard of sidemen to become jazz luminaries in their own right is immense.  John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul to name just a few.  Now think of all the music and musicians that grew out of the talent and leadership of these players.  The leadership DNA from Miles has been seeding innovation and achievement for more than sixty years.

Another key to the Jazz Leadership model is an environment of support that encourages risk taking and experimentation.  An ensemble is given every note to play.  They are given parameters (a melody line, some chord changes, a starting tempo) and then together they create within the context laid forth.  When the leader gives too little direction, the result is noise and pointless noodling.  Too much direction and the spontaneity and invention are missing.  When the team is listening to each other, adding their contribution with confidence and still providing space for the contribution of others the result can be bold, exciting, touching, inspiring, unique, surprising and uplifting.

How can we bring key leadership qualities of talent development, inspiring vision and an creating an environment that fosters creativity and innovation into our own businesses, workplaces, projects, families and homes?


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