Here’s what jazz music teaches us about leadership

Leaders who communicate with a situational understanding, learn to embrace chaos empower their others to lead can make beautiful music.

Leaders can learn communications improv skills from jazz


Colleagues occasionally refer to a harmoniously executed collaboration as “making beautiful music together,” but rarely does the metaphor extend to leadership. That’s why speaker, bassist and leadership coach Michael Gold, PhD, founded Jazz Impact, through which he delivers music-based learning programs focused on building collaborative skills that are essential for innovative organizations.

Gold recently opened a Jazz Impact session for Ragan by explaining that the link between jazz and leadership starts with clarifying what leadership actually means. Gold says that most organizations consider leadership to be static- part of a single individual’s job description. But true leadership is (and actually always has been) a distributed action that emerges where and when it is needed, especially in conditions of uncertainty.

Just as a jazz ensemble knows how to evolve a tune to meet the needs of the moment, Gold says that leaders must be ready to listen and improvise on the fly. Here are some of his tips for those hoping to get in the groove of improvisational leadership.


1. Maintain a situational understanding of your ensemble

Gold says that leaders are too often expected to automatically straighten out chaotic change in the moment with a unilateral procedure or solution. Of course, jazz doesn’t work that way — a bandleader understands when a certain situation should be toned down to meet the needs of the audience or the room, and when the music should be amplified more. For Duke Ellington, the biggest challenge each night was adjusting to the different spaces they were performing in.

“When it comes down to the actual playing in the moment, everybody shares an equal responsibility for having a very broad situational understanding of what’s going on in the big picture, how their specific role plays into that, what their limitations are, and what the limitations of that role may be because of what the instrument itself is capable of doing,” Gold says. “And how they can either pull back if they have to, or how they can stretch beyond what they’re normally used to doing.”


2. Reassess who you consider a leader

Just as jazz bandleaders must constantly reassess which player should be leading at any given moment in a tune, business leaders can play to the strengths of their workforce by listening before communicating.

“Because of the way that we have to listen in jazz, that leadership function is being played out in every single role at all points,” says Gold. “As a bass player, I am leading in certain very subtle ways that, if I were to pull back on, would radically influence the soloing of the sax player at that moment. If I were to start changing the way that I reflect the rhythm in my line, that would radically alter the way that the sax player leads us through the harmonic changes. And it might be good.”

Gold’s words remind leaders that sometimes stepping back, and relinquishing control to let others lead, strengthens the delivery of the message you are trying to convey. This requires leaders to constantly reassess who they consider to be a leader at their organization, and whose voices merit amplification.


3. Embrace chaos as an opportunity to influence

As an example of improvisational leadership, Gold recalls a gig where he hired a young, technically skilled guitar player who was not listening in the way Gold needed him to listen because of the volume he was playing at during other people’s solos. “I dropped my own volume severely, which all of a sudden caused him to stick out like a sore thumb,” he remembers. “As I watched him from the side, I could see him sort of look around like, ‘What just happened?’ And then I could see the gears turning. He came right down, and then I came back up in volume.”

In this instance, Gold leaned into a temporarily chaotic moment as a learning moment. This approach was largely informed by one of his first Jazz Impact gigs in  2002, when he spoke to a group of scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Their work applied the concept of chaos theory to organizational development, with a focus of how order emerges out of chaos.

“These folks were starting to tie chaos theory into how leadership could be thinking about how creating order with the people that they’re working with,” he said.  “That shaped a lot of my thinking moving forward.”

“If we’re aware of our situational conditions, where we want to go, what we need to determine, and what we want the outcome to be, we can influence in much more efficient and effective ways,” says Gold.


Michael Gold, PhD has spent his life as an improviser. He has been a jazz musician, teacher, VP in the real estate and financial services sector, organizational development consultant, and public speaker. He lives in Minneapolis and New York and continues to work for positive change.

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