Ambiguity, risk, urgency, public scrutiny: Nothing is more inevitable. Anxiety, negativity, fear, shame: Nothing is more sabotaging of success.

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Some of the most interesting people are the ones who surprise you with what they do when they aren’t doing what they do.  Like the skilled surgeon who also drag races.  Or the Army general who also paints.   Similarly, the observations these people make, based on commonalities in their divergent interests, are often thought provoking.

This is the case of Frank J. Barrett.  He is a management scholar and lecturer with a PhD in Organizational Behaviour and also an accomplished jazz pianist.  Barrett is the author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.

Laura Montgomery discusses the book. “In Barrett’s view, business is a mess just like life on the jazz stage. You find yourself in situations you didn’t choose, dictated by the decisions and actions of others. You have countless options for moving forward, but no clear rules to tell you what the right answer is. The only way to succeed is through improvisation and innovation, rooted in a positive, unrestrained mindset.”

 Montgomery goes on to list Barrett’s seven principles of jazz improvisation that can help those who lead teams.  While all seven present interesting perspectives, two, in particular, struck a chord with me.

The first is “Performing and experimenting simultaneously.  In a fast-paced environment, it’s not possible to learn first and then execute. You have to learn while executing. Errors are an important source of learning. Instead of punishing or ignoring mistakes, Barrett encourages leaders to adopt a policy of ‘enlightened trial and error.’ ”

What a refreshing view.  Unless you work in a laboratory where experimentation is what you do or in companies that develop products, there is typically little room in business for experimenting – for fear, I suppose, of making a mistake, rattling feathers, going against tradition or other reasons.  But, what if experimentation were not a risk to be avoided but rather a learning activity to enhance job performance?  Would you do your work differently?

The second principle is “Followership as a noble calling.  A good jazz musician knows when to quiet down and give others the spotlight. Although being a “follower” has gotten a bad rap in contemporary corporate culture, Barrett insists that there is great nobility in taking a step back in order to bring out the brilliance in others. ‘As a leader, don’t just reward the shining stars on your teams—also give recognition to those who have been critical catalysts for others’ success.’ ”

Not only does this principle describe the magic of great jazz, it serves as a perfect mental picture of how teams should work together.  In high-performing teams, leadership changes depending on the work to be done and the specific competencies of the team members. At various times, members lead and members follow, and both positions are equally valued and respected.  Of course, the “official” team leader has certain responsibilities, like setting vision, establishing high-level guidelines, getting needed resources and removing barriers when they arise.  But, after that, the smart and secure leader moves out of the way and encourages team members do what they do best.

And thus, the music of the team begins.       

Contact us and we can help you further understand how to develop and foster a climate of teaming and high performance in your company.