Jazz and the Leader
NOVEMBER 5, 2014
I once heard someone say that the difference for a musician between playing the classics and playing jazz is that when you play the classics, you play the composer; but when you play jazz, you play yourself. There are thousands upon thousands of books, articles, and speakers that would give you “the formula” for good leadership. Like a good musician, it’s best to learn about the classics—basic principles—but the most effective leadership over the long run results when the way you lead comes from who you are—when you play yourself.
I did a Google search on the term “leadership” and got over 100 million results. A search on Amazon for “leadership books” came up with around 125,000 results. In the academic literature there would be an equally impressive number of references in addition to those. I know that in all those results there is a lot of similarity and redundancy. But if you go through very many of the various sources on leadership, it wouldn’t take long to come up with a bunch of things to add to a “To Do” list for how to be a better leader. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
Many books in the popular press related to leadership seem to come from prominent people who have gained notoriety for being successful in one or more leadership roles. Success naturally leads to trying to figure out the source of success, and it tends to be assumed that if it worked for one, it can work for others. Having been inclined to seek leadership roles at different stages in my life, I have been drawn to trying to figure out ways to be more effective. In some cases it resulted in attempts to apply approaches or techniques that just weren’t me.
“Twelve O’Clock High” is an old movie from around 1950, set in World War II. It has been used as a leadership case study/training tool illustrating a leadership model that essentially says the best leadership approach depends on the circumstances. The US bomber group was not being effective in their bombing missions and they were suffering a lot of casualties. It was determined that the current bomber group commander needed to be replaced—even though he was very knowledgeable, well liked, cared about the crew members, and was obviously devastated at the high casualties. It was determined that the replacement group commander needed to be someone who could be highly directive and demanding, inflexible on the rules, and emotionally detached, in order to deal with the life and death crisis facing the bomber group. The best available leader was not naturally like this, but knowing that’s what was needed, he assumed that persona. The outcome (spoiler alert) was a dramatically more effective bomber group with fewer casualties. Unfortunately, apparently overcome with the stress of the circumstances, the group commander suffered a psychological breakdown and ended up in a catatonic state. It was a fictional story, but a good illustration of how a different leadership style can be more effective in a different and extreme situation. To me, it also provided the unintended illustration of the risk that might be associated with trying to be something you’re not.
Have you heard the term “authentic leadership”? Over the past several years, studies have suggested that increased leadership effectiveness is associated with, among other things, a self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and a greater degree of transparency with subordinates—being more “real.” This strikes me as something that Christians should be way ahead of the game on, especially those who have begun to gain a greater knowledge and experience of God’s grace and the freedom we have in Christ. When we have less to hide and protect, we naturally become more “authentic.” What the authenticity reveals to ourselves as well as others is that between differences in our personalities, gifts, experiences, relationships, training, etc., we are unique as individuals.
And that’s the way God intended it. Even though we’re all made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and, as believers, part of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13); from before the time we were born, God has been making us into unique individuals (Ps. 139:13-16), with unique gifts (1 Cor.12:7) and a unique calling (1 Cor. 12:18). It seems to me that if God went to all that trouble to make us unique, He would want that to manifest in the roles in which He, in His sovereign will, has placed us. And it’s not just the “good” parts of us. Along with our gifts and successes, He has especially called us with our flaws and failures. An authentically unique and flawed child of the King called to have His strength manifest in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
So it’s good to read books on leadership, if you are in, or aspire to be in, a leadership role—to stay in practice with the “classics”—the basics. And when an idea jumps out, like a new musical progression, it may be because it fits well with who you are. But when you get some basics down and you know the musical score, try a little “riffing” in how you lead—let God lead you in leading from who you are. Don’t just play the leadership composers—with His leading, try playing yourself.