As a musician (when time allows), I can remember once reading a newspaper article about changing models of managing and leading that cited a report by a senior manager who used the analogy that it is now less like running a Big Band and more like playing in a jazz trio or quartet. Having played in jazz bands of all shapes – and sizes – for over 20 years – the point really struck home: the chords may stay (roughly) the same, but the whole approach changes. And it’s a change team leaders and managers might tap a mental toe to if they give it a few minutes too.

A Big Band can be compared to the traditional, top-down corporate model. There’s a single dominant figure called a ‘leader’, although their role is about more than simple leadership. A Big Band doesn’t just follow spontaneously – it has the whole route annotated and prescribed in advance. Below the leader comes a large group of people, almost entirely playing tightly subscribed parts: in jazz, this is called the arrangement. (In the office, this is probably called the process, the job role, the role definition and so on.) A Big Band may have a few star soloists – typically high quality players with a trusted history – but their length and placing of their solos is still determined by the leader. Their solos may even be written for them. The majority of players simply play a role that contributes to the whole – as determined by the leader, not by the whole.

All concept of direction is vested in one person, and contributions are pre-determined: ‘skill’ is a measurement of the players’ ability to play the part exactly as written. Any further skill they may have is not just ‘not required’: to use it would be positively unwelcome – it would upset the structure, undermine the arrangement and disturb other players. Any step outside the scripted process is at best a mistake, and at worst a provocative act of dissent. Is that sounding familiar to anyone, I wonder?

In this set up, if you’re not the leader or a star soloist with a patient frame of mind, it’s not a rewarding way of working. Any spare skill, creativity or innovative idea you may hope to deploy will be frowned on: only the leader can have any vision. If this wasn’t the case … well, the term in classical music is concerti grossi – everyone improvising at once. It could be great, but chances are it won’t: the audience may like it even less than the leader. This isn’t an approach that’s open to any changes it hasn’t already decided will happen.

Now look at a more contemporary small jazz group. Just like many other types of human organisation, it’s been downsized. The arrangement is noticeably looser too, although there is still often a strong sense of process – ‘we will take this musical theme and improvise around it together’. There may well be a ‘star’ – the trio, quartet or whatever is often organised round a well-known player – but it’s a very different working model. The context and the quality of the teamworking matter rather more now: a bad trio with a star player is still a bad trio.

What’s changed almost beyond recognition is the method of working together. Nearly all the players will get to solo or highlight their own contributions, which will almost always be improvised in the moment. And the other players must listen and respond continually, knowing how best to provide the most effective accompaniment – improvising minor shifts in beat, changing voicing of chords, dropping in and out. Every voice is heard, and everyone supports everyone else: the arrangement is worked out in real time by all concerned.

(Interestingly, recent medical research shows that the brain waves of guitar players playing together start to synchronise. There may be real science behind ‘team thinking’ that we are only just about to unravel.)

The smaller group can also respond better to a crisis: if the drummer drops a stick, the guitarist breaks a string … well, everyone was listening intently, so they respond and cover the problem: they know how to improvise round a ‘problem’. When there isn’t a tightly pre-set script, having to deviate from one momentarily stops being a crisis.

So small bands are flexible, responsive and adaptable. (They’re also easier to co-ordinate on a daily basis, cheaper to run, easier to tour: economics and changes in the music industry killed off the Big Band as much as changes of style and fashion.) It’s also strongly arguable, however, that they are more creative. A small group playing the same rendition twice is more a sign of tiredness than of a return to tight discipline: with each performance, as creative contributions are encouraged, the piece will evolve – new ideas will be tried, assessed and taken on board. It’s also more rewarding for the players: not only does everyone get to be heard, but they also get to contribute ideas to the overall performance and to see their fellow players’ responses to their contributions.

All this makes leadership in this more modern context a more subtle entity: rather than being someone to follow to the latter, a leader is someone to encourage and motivate and inspire others. They may not even lead some of the time – they can recognise someone else’s contribution at particular points is more relevant or appropriate. (If you need a piano solo, you don’t send a sax player, after all.) Individual skills are respected to a far greater degree – and working together is seen as a way of using everyone’s skills to the best overall effect. To lead the team, you must first be committed – to the overall team, and to its other members. The requirement is the ability to make creative contributions that work towards ‘the greater picture’ and to inspire others to do the same: grandstanding  – which minimises others’ contributions – is out. (If you’ve read anything about being ‘a good team player’, this should be familiar territory even to those who’d struggle to carry a tune in a bucket.)

So have our offices moved on as fast as our musical tastes? (It would easy to make a snide comment here about a couple of technicians with limited social graces doing everything on computers but producing little that’s truly memorable, so I won’t.) Have we got ‘jazzier’ managers than we used to have, or just smaller teams and organisations with younger Big Band leaders writing the arrangements. Control a team too rigidly, and it’s not truly a team – it’s more like a platoon: more like a military arrangement than a musical one.

Interestingly, the US Air Force published a research paper Managing Generations: What the Air Force can learn from the Private Sector that – among other issues – explored ways of helping the USAF to understand generational social issue and attitudes to help it tackle issues of recruitment and retention – tracked changes in trends in different areas of life, including music, attitudes to work and self-employment. Look at the differences between an overview of ‘the Silent Generation’ (those who would have wooed each other to the sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie):

Due to their upbringing and world influences of the time, values of the Silent generation are loyalty, dedication, and commitment. They believe in fairness, openness, due process, and expertise. The generation is not known for decisive leadership, but they do create remarkable relationships with others. As workers, they are extremely loyal and respect the authority of those who are senior to them. They tend to enjoy having formal relationships with their bosses, and are completely content with top-down management styles. While their work hours tend to be 9 to 5, with only occasional overtime, they follow the rules, work hard, and in return expect job security. These characteristics cause them to thrive in hierarchical types of organizations. They are particularly interested in working in big system/large corporations that offer this job security and organizational structure. In fact, only 2% of the Silent generation ever had a desire to be self-employed.”

With the ‘Millenials’ (born between 1979 and 2000):

Millennials grew up during the technology age, so it is very easy for them to use technology, to multitask and to communicate with others. As employees they are adaptable and very comfortable with diversity. Similar to their volunteerism […], in their careers they want to contribute to something that is bigger than they are. Like their relationships with their parents, they want to be treated as equals by their management. They also believe their managers should be mentors instead of autocratic bosses. They tend to feel that older generations are old, redundant, incoherent, and should retire from the work force. Regardless of Millennials energy and drive, they do not identify themselves by their jobs or profession, rather their commitment lays with people not organizations. ” 

One of the key points to the USAF is, of course, that they can only work with who they can recruit – just like any other organisation. If they can’t attract or motivate the people that are available, the organisation suffers the consequences. They’re not dropping the marching bands as far as I’m aware, but the managers are at least ‘changing their tune’ in a few significant ways.

But how do we motivate leaders and managers generally to ‘hand over the microphone’ more often – to give others the chance to shine, to develop, to demonstrate what they can truly do? Even smaller, more flexible organisations can only flex as far as whoever is steering, so how do we motivate more willingness to share the rudder or at least open up discussion about the angle of the tiller? And how do we modify the reward process to encourage and recognise those who make the move from seeing greater interplay and improvising as usurping their own position to acknowledging it as creative and productive?

Shall we finish with some music? One of the greats of jazz piano, Bill Evans, had a trio for a brief period judged to approach perfection: always a fine pianist, the trio inspired him to true greatness. Tragically, the young and supremely gifted bass player was killed in a road accident. As proof that motivation can come from below as well as above – that teams can motivate leaders as well as the reverse – Evans took some time to return to playing or recording – even though it was the trio’s leader or star who had been lost. Subsequent trios, however, achieved very high levels of greatness and were able to draw on the lost player’s ideas and contributions and add their own. So treat yourself to 4 minutes 29 seconds of some beautiful interplay …

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