Real Leaders

How Jazz Can Teach Us About Leadership

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Miles Davis starts with a delicate low rumble. John Coltrane listens quietly, waiting until he feels the beat, tone and tenor of the piece. He joins Miles slowly, complementing and adding until the two dance with each other. Paul Chambers, the bassist, waits patiently, feels the beat and offers a quiet undertone while simultaneously reinforcing the superstructure of the piece. None of them know where the music is going, only where it has been. Pianist Wynton Kelley takes the music to the next level and then passes the lead back to Miles.

The miraculous interchange comes from a powerful and generous listening experience where no ego is involved. The jazz ensemble now plays as one. Through this unspoken synchronicity, the music both soothes and bewilders. Two thirds of the way through it crescendos and then as if the piece was an ode to life, dies the same way it was born, with Miles and a low rumble. I love listening to jazz, mostly for its unexpected and soulful interplay between the musicians.

I find the same fascination with basketball. Considering all major sports, basketball is most like jazz. In contrast to football, which is mostly scripted, basketball unfolds in ever evolving ways. Great teams play basketball like an art form, with each player interacting and responding to the situation.

The ball never bounces the same twice. To master the game of basketball and ensemble jazz, there is a kind of resonance that is required. That resonance comes from a lot of practice, and most importantly paying attention to others. In addition, it’s essential to respond rather than try and control the circumstances and outcome. In business, the same is true of great teamwork.

High performing teams share a powerful relational bond, and rather than follow a script, in an ever-changing world, the team learns and adapts together. Plans are made, and tactics implemented. Depending on the outcome the team shifts or reaffirms collaboratively. Doing it together is where the resonance comes in; all team members are continuously adapting to one another in ever evolving synchronicity, that when done well, is truly something to behold. It is the quintessence of great teamwork.

The good news is that it can be learned. Recent research by Guillaume Dumas et. Al. has shown through the hyper-scanning of brain recordings that this synchronicity can actually be measured in the brain. There are now known regions of the brain that “light up” during social activity and reinforce the desire and ability to get in synch with one another.

This is not surprising, but is tantalizing nonetheless. It suggests that perhaps interacting and being in “synch” is a natural phenomenon. In the debate about whether we humans are competitive or cooperative by nature, here is some proof that our nature is actually quite cooperative.

Of course we can choose to be both, but the fact that we can observe and measure this need or desire to be in synch with one another is fascinating. Couples who are in synch know this well. They finish each others’ sentences as if their brains are tied together. Put scientifically, their “interbrain synchronizing network” just lit up. Great leaders understand this phenomenon too. It is the ability to listen generously to one another, get in synch around mutual aims, and then adjust to one another in a jazz-like manner that marks great teams.

As a result, conscious leaders cultivate, in themselves and others, the ability to listen, express, and mutually adapt. Together these qualities produce the kind of “dynamic steering” of a strategy to optimal and mutually satisfying outcomes. Great leaders are great jazz musicians.

Citation: Dumas G, Nadel J, Soussignan R, Martinerie J, Garnero L (2010) Inter-Brain Synchronization during Social Interaction. PLoS ONE 5(8): e12166. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012166