Since writing about challenges alone has no value in itself, I will try to put into words those leadership qualities and attentions that will support you in overcoming them. In doing so, however, I will draw a parallel with jazz. Why jazz?
The structure in which leaders operate is no longer an organization, but a global context. This, however, has become unpredictable, conditioned by rapidly changing circumstances in the economy, politics, society, the environment, most of which we have no direct influence on.
Am I wrong in stating that the conditions in which organizations strive to achieve goals are becoming more and more jazz alike?
Many people don’t like jazz. They find it too demanding, too inharmonious, too chaotic. Sounds familiar? Aren’t the circumstances in which we operate becoming more and more complex, requiring constant attention focused on change and finding novel solutions? This is jazz, whether we like it or not. So, what do we do? Nothing but learning to ‘play jazz’. What else is jazz, if not exactly adaptation, development and improvisation at the moment of playing itself?
The floating stage on which we play
Imagine playing with your orchestra on a floating stage that is otherwise anchored in the industry, in the region, in the legislative framework, and so on. When the wave comes, the stage rocks a little, but no major harm is caused. Even if someone drops an instrument from their hand, they will pick it up and use it as ever in no time.
Sometimes there is a storm – in the form of takeovers, reorganizations, cost-cutting, counting heads. A new conductor arrives, the first violin goes to the second row, the percussionists are fired, the brass section is already learning to blow the new horn. Definitely uncomfortable, but the survival instinct keeps us alive.
It gets severe when a ‘tsunami’ occurs, a pandemic or other large-scale phenomenon that we are not prepared for and which always causes a breakdown of the balance. The consequences have a powerful and devastating resonance. If we are near the epicentre, there may be nothing left of our stage. And even if we are far away, we can suffer terrible damage. This is a situation that is hard to be prepared for. It is certainly wise to be well anchored in a human dimension; for when the going gets tough, it is only the people who will build the new stage.
In order to maintain humanity, this fragile harbour of our species, people need hope captured in a common aspiration and trust captured in a value framework and living in relationships.
The stage we are playing on is moving. It is not moving because we would like it to be so, but it is moving because of the sea we are sailing on. It contains unexplored depths, known and unknown currents and forces that cause unstoppable motion. There are millions of start-up plankton in the sea. When night falls, they glow with creativity and when the sun rises, they hope to be eaten by some technological whale. Tons of civilizational filth are floating along the invisible currents, causing the disappearance of animal species, professions, organizations, entire industries that have failed to adapt to this otherwise shameful situation that is plaguing our collective conscience and consciousness. Icebergs break into it and cause a rise in the water level, which creates increasing pressure on the mainland, employees, families, humanity. In some environments, the water has already risen so high that it flows into people’s throats and causes depression, burnouts, and other imbalances.
The traps of the Viennese waltz
So, such is the stage we play on. Unpredictable and in perpetual motion. Just like jazz. If we insist on it with the score of the predictable and definite Viennese waltz, it may happen that we will have our final concert on January 1, 2021.
There is nothing wrong with the waltz as such, just to make it clear. It goes well with sour soup after a busy New Year’s Eve. It caresses the ear and on leap years it even lifts husbands – at around noon – from the armchair, so that not only the wooden spoon but also the wife can be seen swirling in the kitchen when the harmony of On the beautiful blue Danube flows into space.
Do you see what power the known and predictable have? It immediately rocked me into the past, and that was at the very moment when I may have just managed to convince you that the world is becoming more and more jazz-like and that we therefore need to learn something about jazz as well. This is the trap of the Viennese waltz. It is beautiful, predictable and comfortable. In it, things are (de)finite. Everyone does what is assigned to them and does not have to deal with finding new paths, listening to problems in other departments, transferring information, co-creating. All that is expected of us is to play our notation and watch conductor.
While the Viennese waltz remained a Viennese waltz, frozen in time and eternally beautiful, jazz changed or allowed itself to take shape for many virtuosos in ever new appearances. You could say it let itself flow and evolved along with life. It acquired this ability of constant change, transformation, among other things because it allows musicians freedom. The playing is not strictly guided or conditioned but arises in a space between musicians who are able to surrender to creation in the process of creating itself. »What top-notch competence!« you may be exclaiming as you read. »This is exactly what we would need in our company. You know, I keep telling people to be more creative,” too many clients have already told me.
I can’t say otherwise than straight. If you stand on the conductor’s podium and look infatuatedly at a score (that can be called a five-year strategy), every now and then glare at the trombones (that can be called dissenters) may they become too loud, and when you address an audience (that can be called clients) bow to it, while showing the orchestra when you bow, well, you know what, THEN you just don’t create the conditions to play jazz.
Form and freedom
In jazz, the leader is the one who sets the structure, determines the rhythm, tempo, dynamics and designs the melody. So similar, if not the same as in organizations where it is the responsibility of the leader or management to formulate a vision, strategy, leadership principles and establish a value system. The difference, however, is that in jazz, the leader, when he steps on stage, offers a free path to the potential of individual musicians. The moment the tone is released into silence, he becomes one of the musicians. He still cares about form, but at the same time he drops control and is open to wondering what all the other musicians are capable of creating in the given conditions.
This leadership attitude is closely linked to the notion of empowerment, which is much talked about and under-implemented.
Employees’ empowerment is not important because it is currently a fashionable buzz, yet because in conditions of uncertainty that are a reality, we can no longer maintain the kind of control we once could.
Every unforeseen situation shakes the stage. If we are strong and flexible in organizations at the level of the entire orchestra of employees, we will certainly have better chances of thriving over time.
Control is for beginners
Empowerment means sharing power, knowledge, trusting interpretation, learning from mistakes, and leaving decision-making to whoever will play their solo. It also means the awareness of leaders that they will no longer be able to control everything. Simply because the pace is getting faster, the knowledge more specialized and the interconnectedness ever more complex.
Control is for beginners, is an unwritten saying in jazz. The mission of leaders is to establish conditions and guidelines that will provide people with support and the opportunity to unleash their potential, as well as the awareness that freedom is the responsibility of a good choice.
Every choice, as we know, also has its consequences. That is why we need value guides to reduce the possibility of wrong decisions and to perform the task of self-control. The path to rooting the value system at all levels of the organization and to each employee leads there. If this work is done well, leaders can indulge in wondering what all people not only can but could do.