Jazz player

Leadership jazz

Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School and author of ‘The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for seeing, being and doing’, draws on the teachings of Duke Ellington to provide a new approach to leadership.

Leadership is about taking charge of situations – not staying within the bureaucratic boundaries of your accountabilities, KPIs and direct reports. It means seeing your role as a culture carrier, as someone who has a special responsibility for shared experience and collective performance.

Let’s pick out some points and principles. To do this, I want to draw upon the approach of a leadership hero of mine from outside the world of business – the late great Duke Ellington, composer and bandleader. For over 40 years, Duke created and held together the most challenging organisation in the world to sustain – the jazz orchestra.

Here are some of his leadership lessons:

  • Tell your story: Every leader has to be able to stand up and say ‘this is who I am and this is why I am here.’ Duke’s mission was always clear – he abandoned his privileged background to learn his trade in the creative world of popular music.
  • Seeing is believing: Leaders have a duty to see what others don’t – to rise above and see the context. When his musicians were buried in the musical experience, Duke could stand apart to show them their mission for the wider world of their audience and the media.
  • Read hearts and minds: In 360° feedback this is what staff say their bosses do worst.  The remedy is ‘decentring’ – asking smart questions of people; active listening (checking understanding); constructing a testable model of what the world looks like from their point of view; and then managing them in a way that works for them. Duke was a master in handling the most diverse and difficult people in the world – jazz musicians!
  • Feature talents: When Duke composed, he devised numbers that featured individual players. It’s a great motivator for team members to have their moment in the limelight, where each one feels they make a unique difference to the performance of the organisation.
  • Think ensemble: Duke understood his role was to be an enabler of the talents of others. He brought people together – showing that everyone matters equally to the performance.
  • Empower creatively: A leader isn’t there to solve everyone else’s problems, but to allow people to work together creatively to solve problems collectively. This is the spirit of jazz improvisation.
  • Shape the culture: It is the leader’s job to represent the shared values of the organisation – even if it is only those of one or two people. This approach drives the best family firms. The Duke Ellington Orchestra gloried in its unique identity and delighted audiences as they did so.

Engaged performers and a great sound are cause and effect; and are within the reach of every leader. 

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK