Like most aspiring jazz musicians, I would dream often
during my formative years of touring and recording with my heroes. As my career
developed I also began to entertain the idea of teaching jazz. But never in my
wildest dreams could I have envisioned myself addressing roomfuls of business
executives on how jazz could actually enhance their work.
I am not talking about a group of CEOs jamming with musical instruments,
but rather viewing their work and their interactions, in the boardroom
particularly, as open to the possibilities of improvisation that forms the
basis of jazz.
Jazz players spontaneously give and take musical ideas. When this exchange
really clicks, the sense of individuality gives way to a sense of collective
immersion in the whole. Ideas emerge that would not have been conceived by
individuals playing in isolation.
Some of the best recorded examples of this phenomenon are John Coltrane's
version of "My Favorite Things" ("My Favorite Things," 1960) and Keith
Jarrett's "All the Things You Are" ("Jazz Standards Vol. 1," 1983). In both
instances the players individually and collectively find new levels of meaning
and expression within the framework of the original piece.
We don't often think of it, but the same kind of creative dynamic is
possible inside a corporation, when people have the opportunity to exchange
ideas and information. Working like a jazz ensemble, business groups can
uncover new marketing strategies, product lines, negotiation angles or
organizational structures that no individual could have dreamed up alone.
Seeking just these kinds of creative breakthroughs, Bill Gore, founder of
W.L. Gore & Associates, makers of an extraordinary diversity of products from
Gore-Tex, Glide Floss and Elixir guitar strings to filtration and surgical
products, established a "flat lattice" organization in 1958without typical
chains of command or lines of communication. "Instead, we communicate directly
with each other," the company explains on its Web site.
"Leaders may be appointed but are defined by 'followership.' More often,
leaders emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill or
experience that advances a business objective."
When something parallel happens in jazz, players report experiencing a
heightened consciousness characterized by enhanced mental clarity, spontaneity,
ease of execution, ability to focus, enhanced listening capacities,
interpersonal communion and inner calm.
In a corporation it's the moment when an organization becomes optimally
harmonious, receptive and adaptable to new ideas and functions as a supportive
community for ideas and innovation, as well as an efficient economic entity.
Why focus on jazz as a model for this experience? Why not classical music
or other forms of art or, for that matter, scientific exploration or team
sports? I believe that jazz uniquely combines two kinds of skills that, when
reconciled, promote consistent episodes of peak creativity.
First, jazz requires levels of technical mastery of an instrument and the
harmonic, melodic and rhythmic foundations of music that few other genres can
match. Second, jazz is one of the most improvisatory of musical styles and
requires a kind of freedom, fluidity and group sensitivity that can be very
Jazz musicians must constantly be resolving a paradox: They need technical
expertise to play their instruments very well, yet they also need to be free of
that expertise to create spontaneously. Technical mastery requires repetitive
practice that can result in a tendency to play in predictable ways, where
regurgitation of technical or idiomatic patterns overshadows spontaneity. The
solution is not to forsake craft, but to invoke a level of creativity where
both access to and freedom from technical and conceptual resources is possible.
Dizzy Gillespie, to name one of the masters of this level of playing, was
once shown a transcription of one of his recorded solos, without being told it
was his, and stated flat out he could not possibly execute such technically
Leaders of a corporation might ask: What are the technical skills required
to be successful in this business? What are the parallels to jazz's harmonic
and rhythmic structures, atop which improvisation occurs? What are the
conditioned patterns inherent in corporate situations that might impede
spontaneous, creative interactions?
One skill that is essential to jazz is listening. Players build quiet space
into their solo work and will lay out entirely for long stretches, as other
ensemble members move the music forward. At its best, this is much more than
just waiting for a turn to re-enter. Creative or deep listening involves as
intensive an engagement in the musical flow as if one were playing all along.
When we hear Lee Morgan's brilliant trumpet solo on Coltrane's composition
"Blue Train" ("Blue Train," Blue Note, 1957), we know he has been ardently
attuned to the previous soloists.
Creative listening in a corporate setting is likewise more than politely
allowing space for others to speak. It is a matter of deep engagement in what
is being said, so that colleagues sense a heightened presence and commitment to
what is being articulated and felt.
Any successful leader needs to know when to be silent and let others take
charge, and when to share or seize the reins. Jazz provides a blueprint, as
each ensemble member occupies both foreground and background roles in a given
A musician who judiciously finds spaces for silence can, upon re-entering,
bring a newfound energy and passion that may transform the direction of the
music, as did pianist Herbie Hancock with Miles Davis' legendary quintet from
Corporate leaders who listen deeply are enabling themselves to gain
consensus on risky yet exciting ideas that otherwise might have met with
insurmountable opposition. This kind of listening fosters peak collective
coherence in the group and also can create space for ideas to be articulated by
others. Suddenly, an entirely new solution will emerge, persuasively, from a
person who was encouraged by the feeling within the group to wait for just the
right moment to speak.
There are no images more incongruous than the smoky late-night jazz club
and the wood-paneled corporate board room, or the musician in the turtleneck
and the executive in the pinstriped suit. And the general lack of familiarity
with jazz in modern culture means that many of those running corporations might
not think that jazz had much to teach them.
But it does. Adapt these elements to the corporation, and you can arrive at
entirely new understandings of ways to do business.