Jazzy leadership: The essential elements of a great school leader

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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'Do not fear mistakes. There are none.’ From improvisation to risk-taking, drawing on two leadership books, John Dabell suggests some of the elements that make for effective school leadership

In Leadership Jazz, (Doubleday, 1992) author Max De Pree used the analogy of jazz to describe leadership, in that a jazz ensemble brings together the talents of several musicians.

The leader picks the tune, sets the tempo and starts the music. After that, it is up to the group to be disciplined and free, restrained and wild, leaders and followers, focused and wide-ranging.

The musicians are expected to play solo and together, and at all times the expected outcome is enjoyment for themselves and the audience. The ethos of jazz is participative creative work.

Jazz improvisations do not take place under the strict direction of a conductor or composer – instead, each player experiments, adjusts and creates.

Leadership elements described by De Pree include:

  • Accepting risk.
  • Being accountable.
  • Having a sense of history, but not dwelling on it.
  • Being compassionate, truthful and fair.
  • Having unshakable commitment.

A leader is one who is not afraid to work with creative people but encourages and supports creativity, knowing that really great ideas can shake up the organisation for the better.

A leader must be vulnerable and offer others the opportunity to be and do their best. A leader provides the environment which facilitates creative thinking and creates opportunities for people to work together.

And what about followers? They need opportunities to do their best. De Pree made these suggestions for followers:

  • Develop a high degree of literacy about the institution – understand its motives; accept what must be measured and what the constraints are.
  • Take responsibility for achieving personal goals.
  • See work and take ownership in areas of responsibility and accountability.
  • Become loyal to the idea behind the institution, even when unable to agree with all the goals and processes.
  • Resist the inevitable and understandable fear of the unknown.
  • Understand and value the contributions of others.
  • Be open to change.
  • Be a builder, not a taker.
  • Ask a great deal of the leader.

Followers have an equal responsibility to move organisations forward. Everyone needs to realise that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.

De Pree says that the art of leadership is liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible. Thus, the leader is the “servant” of his followers in that he removes the obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs.

Developing the idea of jazzy leadership, Frank J Barrett in Yes to the Mess (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) argues that leaders today need to be expert improvisors and proposes seven leadership lessons that can help those who lead teams. These seven leadership lessons are summarised as follows…

Mastering the art of unlearning: Barrett says: “We all have routines, habits based on what has worked for us before. But this can lead to us getting better and better at the wrong things – what I call skilled incompetence.” He urges us to be suspicious of our own habits and ways of doing things; he urges us to see situations with fresh eyes.

Affirmative competence: Barrett asserts: “We are at our best when we’re open to the world. Effective improvisation is born out of an attitude of radical receptivity – saying ‘yes’ to whatever situation is handed to you.”

Performing and experimenting simultaneously: In a fast-paced environment like a school it’s not always possible to learn first and then execute. You have to learn while executing and that means making mistakes. Mistakes and errors are always an important source of learning. Whereas in classical music, mistakes are easily identifiable and frowned upon, in jazz they are embraced because “errors” encourage improvisation. So instead of punishing or ignoring mistakes we need to adopt a policy of “enlightened trial and error”.

Minimal structure, maximal autonomy: Anything that is too structured will just kill creativity and innovation. Jazz has some basic fundamental structures that serve to facilitate coordination among players, but they are loose enough to allow for freedom. Barrett argues that we need to be more flexible in the workplace and give teams “guided autonomy”.

Jamming and hanging out: In jazz jam sessions, novices learn from the more experienced musicians and in an informal atmosphere, exchanges are more relaxed and fluid and this can spark insight and inspiration.

Followership as a noble calling: Jazz bands rely on "shared leadership" whereby each player usually takes turns to play solos and move into the spotlight. A good jazz musician knows when to step out of the limelight and give others their spot. Barrett insists that there is great nobility in taking a step back in order to bring out the brilliance in others.

Humility means that you know others can have great ideas too and so you give them the opportunity to contribute. Conflicts are resolved in real time using the guiding principle “serve the music”. As a leader, don’t just reward the shining stars on your teams – also give recognition to those who have been critical catalysts for other people’s success.

Leadership as provocative competence: Leaders need to create situations whereby they break their teams out of “competency traps”. Barrett says: “Leaders should aim to introduce incremental disruption in their teams to encourage people to jump out of their comfort zones and provoke a vulnerability that inspires learning.”

In jazz terms what does this look like? When he was performing live, Miles Davis ("never play the same thing twice") was known to call a song for his band to play but change the key from what everyone was used to and this meant everyone had to adapt quickly and learn new skills on the spot in real time.


And finally….

Miles Davis once said: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” In jazz, a note is neither right nor wrong. The decentralised leadership approach of jazz musicians is something schools can really learn from.

John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.com


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