My Epiphone Emperor Joe Pass guitar upon which I am learning…leadership? Read on!
It’s a cliche as old as time, one I have been guilty of using occasionally too. Leadership is like jazz, where the members of an ensemble support each other in improvisation. We listen carefully, respond to what each other is doing, offer creative responses and make something amazing together.
Yes. Leadership is way more about improvisation than, say, following a step to step guide to assembling IKEA furniture.
But there is another set of metaphors from jazz that I have never seen talked about, perhaps because it needs you to understand a little about music theory, but that is leadership as jazz harmony.
My pandemic project was, after forty years, marrying my love of jazz with my love of guitar playing. My musical life hasn’t been the same. It has felt like starting over again. I have been learning jazz guitar with a teacher and with online tools now since late 2020. I’m focusing on learning how to play jazz standards, mostly solo, which means learning how to make chord melodies while also trying to do interesting things with improvised lines, over chords. I had to learn the fretboard in new ways, had to learn new techniques for voicing chords and playing lines from scales to which I had never given much thought: the harmonic minor, the altered scale, the Lydian dominant. I am getting to the point where I am learning to say things with jazz, but I feel like a baby. One reason for that is that there is SO MUCH TO LEARN from technique to theory to language to repertoire.
Of course with all new endeavours you have to learn a bit of theory to understand how it all works. While I know basic music theory, I have also had to take a deep dive into jazz theory because at its core, jazz is a structured, logical music that provides a harmonic and rhythmic container for improvisation and all the tools one needs comes from the specific ways jazz theory works. When you are playing on guitar, especially comping the lush and colourful jazz chords that accompany other players, your goal is to be as sparse as possible while still implying the harmony so that the melodic lines that the soloists are producing make sense. To the untrained and cynical ear, jazz sounds like “the wrong notes” but in the hands of skilled guitarists, jazz harmony has a number of different characteristics that are interesting.
First of all, in good jazz guitar playing, we try to make arrangements where the chords change only one or two notes at a time, and most often to notes that are just nearby. This is called “voice leading” and has been a feature of Western music since harmony was invented. In fact it probably was the origin of harmony, as two independent voices singing together will produce different notes. Sometimes these notes will sound pleasing and consonant and sometimes they will clash and sound dissonant. However, the point of voice leading is to guide the ear gently from one chord to another through the changes. As long as I have have loved music I have loved voice leading. I spent hours just voicing chords on piano as a kid without knowing what I was doing. But when you play a chord and change one note you discover that you are somewhere else entirely. Your next move from there is constrained by where you are now, and there are patterns of logic and harmonic tradition that are yours to follow or break as you wish.
Because guitar is a weird instrument – six strings played with four or five fingers with the same note appearing in different places all over the neck – jazz guitarists are very fond of stripping chords down to only two notes, to play their essence. In jazz we call these “guide tones” and they are the 3rd and the 7th notes of the chord scale. For example if I’m playing in the key of C and I need a C major 7 chord, I need only to play an E and a B (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) to imply the chord. Guide tones, along with the context of the chord – what comes before and after it – gives you enough information to work with to create a solo that sounds good. Guide tones are connected to voice leading. Playing a standard jazz chord progression like a Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 (the well-known “ii-V-I”) with guide tones produces smooth voice leading: Notes go like this: F-C, B-F, E-B. You can see that in each chord change, only one note changes, but when it does it produces a very different sound. We get led by one notes that wants to stay stable (the third) and one that wants to go somewhere else (the seventh). Together these two notes contains the essence of tension and release.
Jazz harmony is all about tension and release. In most of the music I have ever played on guitar, chords are just blocks of information. I might have a chord progression that goes C-Am-F-G (I-vi-IV-V) which is very common in pop and folk music and while certain chords want to go to other certain chords, the most tension is with the G chord, the five chord, which wants to go back to a C. End a song on a five chord, and your audience will be left in suspension. Go listen to the end of The Beatles “For No One” and you’ll see what I mean. You get left there. What happens next? This is the most basic tension and release. When most of us are learning guitar, we learn 7th chords and understand that these always lead us back to the tonic. D7 goes to G. A7 goes to D. C7 goes to F.
In jazz working with tension and release is a high art and there are many, MANY, more things you can do with chords to make jazz lines flow from one chord to the other, but the essence is that a little bit of suspense makes for a satisfying resolution. So we take those guide tones and start adding notes to them, and this is where jazz theory gets really arcane. You can add a sharp 11 or a flat 13 or a sharp or flat 9 to give you some tension and dissonance. Or you can add a 9, 6 (or 13) to give some lush colour to a more stable chord. You can play different scales over different chords. You can keep suspense and tension alive for a long time, or just imply it and bring it home. In Western music tension and release is such an important aspect of the musical experience that it is essential to understand for both composition and improvisation. Music with no tension of release is just a drone. Everything else in music is textured around moments of discomfort and anticipation and moments of relief and stability.
So if you want to see all this in its glory have a watch of this old Ed Bickert recording with his trio. Ultimately all of these tools are helpful in aid of creating a container inside which you make coherent choices for expressing yourself. And THAT is why jazz harmony is like leadership.
Extending the metaphor
I’m writing a lot on containers right now, so my attention is guided toward how containers – contexts for meaningful action – are structured and how we create them. In complex situations, leadership is about creating these contexts for action and interaction, and there are many lessons from the world of jazz harmony that apply here. Here are a few, in case you haven’talrady sussed them.
Theory matters. It really does. In jazz, there are reasons why something sounds “jazzy” and reasons why it doesn’t, and the same is true in working with containers and people. There are things you can do as a leader that will have better chances of certain outcomes than other things. Learning theory, especially working in complexity – like why managing to targets is less effective than managing to a direction of travel – will help you create experiences for people that get better results over time. If you want your tem to be more creative, there are things you can do that will help. If you all want to learn some new things together, knowing what they are and how learning works makes a big difference to how effective you will all be.
Small changes make a big difference. Voice leading in jazz has taught me that changing one small thing can have a powerful effect of taking you somewhere else. We think of “change” in organizations as a big planned thing, but in reality the constant change that arises from interactions between people creates all kinds of new situations. Leadership is about working with existing stability – for better or worse – and making small adjustments to see what can be done to take you closer to your preferred direction of travel. And making small changes means that, as you are improvising, you don’t over commit to an idea that has no future. Instead you are trying to open up new pathways to explore – called affordances in complexity – that are coherent with what is already happening, but might offer a better way to be.
Start with where you are. In jazz if you are playing in the key of B flat major, you should not play a line from the D major scale unless you really really really know what you are doing. One of the biggest lessons I have learned from complexity theory over the years is that the current state matters so much that any attempt to just show up and create something new in a workshop or a retreat with no regard to context is almost guaranteed to be a failure. In complexity, change happens along affordances in the current context, and fruitful change-making and leadership understands that. That is not to say that you cannot create completely new things out of the blue, but there are all kinds of reasons why this entails a massive energy cost to individuals, not the least of which relates to just how much tension and release people can take.
Tension and release helps us move from one place to another. Our work lives are full of moments of tension snd suspense followed by moments of release and stability. Cognitively, we can only stay in this so long and we all have different tolerances. Just like your endurance for listening to a free jazz piece that seems to have no release of stability at all – I love Cecil Taylor but your mileage may vary – folks at work will have a hard time staying in a state of constant tension, or indeed, constant stability. And even though good leaders give their teams and organizations a sense of stability over time, ignoring the changing context of one’s work can render a team irrelevant or ineffective, and in some cases, an entire company can find itself no longer in business. So as a leader, it’s a developed practice to dance with the paradoxes of challenge and rest, creativity and stability, outside thinking and standardization. Human beings live this journey and it is what helps us grow and evolve and form and break our identities and try new things and generally give meaning to our lives. That is a high art of leadership: to create what I’ve heard Jennifer Garvey Berger call “life-giving contexts.”
So there you go. The next time you meet someone who just cavalierly throws around the “leadership = jazz” metaphor, go a bit deeper. And I encourage you to really listen to great music to hear all these things at play. Knowing a bit about how music works helps us to understand why it matters to you, why you like what you like and why and how you are moved by it. Just like everything.