Let's take it from the top...

Today's leaders should be technically competent, good improvisers and team-builders - just like the great jazz musicians, says Robert Craven
Click to follow
I HAVE often heard management speakers liken the role of the business leader to that of the role of the classical orchestra conductor. But maybe our changing times and sounds now need a metaphor more akin to that of a jazz leader to deal with ever-increasing change: the "big boss"!

The orchestra conductor has often been cited as the perfect metaphor of a leader; the conductor is capable of handling an enormous amount of complexity and yet they deal with it with creativity and harmony. In the Army, as well as in business, campaigns are regularly referred to as having to be "orchestrated".

The need to manage complexity seems to become more important as the rate of change and the pressures of the external environment increasingly exert themselves on the business organisation. This pressure is so great that maybe the skills of the jazz leader are now required more than the skills of the classical orchestra leader. Let us consider this metaphor for a moment.

I would like to put forward some of my definitions: jazz is about taking a theme, taking it to bits within a rhythmic framework, and putting that back together such that two plus two equals five - you have more than you started with; the great jazz leader has to be thoroughly schooled in the fundamentals, yet possessing an absolute technical competence, and also being able to improvise on a theme. The crucial skill of modern management is this ability to improvise on a theme; this is what separates the classical from the jazz leader.

The ability to improvise is so important because it is this ability that enables the leader to develop patterns as they unfold. For most leaders there is no real score or script. The leader is given a theme around which he or she must work and improvise.

The metaphor of jazz is a rich one. We only need to think of some of the great jazz musicians of the later half of the century to see the similarities. Great names such as Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Loussier, Wynton Marsalis, Gil Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Stephane Grappelli took traditional themes and ways of working and pushed them to the limit - as with all innovative work, some of it didn't seem to make so much sense to the mainstream. However, years of expanding what were originally narrowly defined parameters have opened up new possibilities for the players (and their customers, the audience).

Ellington, Loussier, Brubeck and Grappelli can be seen as examples of the expansion of the "traditional" way of doing things; compare them with one of the more innovative modern business leaders, say Sir John Harvey Jones or Sir John Egan. Both are classically trained and are thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of their profession. The Julian Richers, Richard Bransons and Anita Roddicks are equally grounded although their learning may not be quite so formal (compare Miles Davis or John Coltrane for the less classically trained jazz players).

Both management and jazz leaders should be great team players (the Dave Brubeck Quartet were together for 16 years). Both types need to be innovators and have a passion for the success of the team which is only matched by the compassion for the team. Humility is shown in giving credit to the team rather than taking it away from the team.

What counts is the leader and his/her ability to take the whole further, beyond existing, safe boundaries. In other words, to improvise and to learn. To learn you have to make mistakes, but the key is to learn from those mistakes.

Management-speak and jazz-speak do merge. The role of the leader is to achieve the task - after all, this is why the group exists. The other main role is to maintain effective relationships.

Both types of leader are committed to achieving results through people. Their main objectives will be to:

o gain the commitment and the co-operation of the team;

o get the group into action to achieve agreed objectives;

o make the best use of the skills, energies and talents of the whole team.

John Adair could have been writing about jazz band leaders when he said that successful leaders need to harness and satisfy the needs of the task, the group, and the individuals to be successful.

For me, we can even get value out of considering the various dimensions of leadership. Most leaders' style lies somewhere along the continuum between being charismatic and non-charismatic, between being autocratic and democratic, between being a visionary/enabler and a controller/manipulator. Finally, we can look at leaders as being between being transactional (ie doing an adequate job) and transformational (making the team feel that the work is something really special).

All in all, we can take the jazz leader as a good example of the characteristics that we would hope to find in a business leader. What happens when we loosen the definition to include pop music, rock'n'roll, or even punk?

A lovely example of the difference between (visionary) leadership and (getting things done) management has emerged with the publication of the biography, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, by Barry Miles. The biography suggests that Paul McCartney was in some respects the creative leader of the Beatles rather than John Lennon. The writer Neil McCormick quotes Yoko Ono as she springs to her dead husband's defence: "John did not make the phone calls, he was not on that level as a leader - he was on the level of a spiritual leader. He was the visionary and that is why the Beatles happened."

He wondered whether future musicologists will "view Sir Paul [McCartney] as little more than an organiser with a good telephone manner basking in the reflected glory of Lennon's genius". What a wonderful portrayal of the difference between the leader and the manager!

Robert Craven heads up the Executive Development Office at the University of Bath School of Management. Contact: 01225 826902.