Leadership as Jazz: Becoming an Improvisational Leader

Sometimes articles pass through your news feed that, when you read them, make you nod your head so consistently you fear you’ll give yourself a headache.

If Miles Davis Taught your Company to Improvise

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.”

How do we as individuals, leaders and organizations prepare to Improvise? It can be done. In fact, here are 5 tips.

It’s why Improvisers rehearse, warm-up, and spend a lot of time building trust. We learn the structure first, and then find the freedom within the safety we’ve created.

1.  Approach leadership tasks as experiments – Be open to what emerges by suspending a defensive attitude. Improvisers are skilled at withholding judgement – with both our own ideas and the ideas of others.

“An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery”

Being more open and receptive to the ideas of those around you also helps to break up a routine or automatic habits that may be weighing you, and your team down.

2. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – Saying “no” is a habit for many of us, for many different reasons. To use what’s in the room, and accept all offers is to heighten and find the positive in what is already available to us. In improvisation, wishing things were different is truly a useless game.

“Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.”

3. Everyone gets a chance to solo – Learn the give and take. And, at the same time, if you’re passionate about an idea, do you have the freedom to go solo and experiment beyond your comfort zone?

4. Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

5. Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory. – Competence versus a learning and growth mindset? Is there a happy medium?

“The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see people’s potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.”

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