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The Improvisation of Leadership

September 28, 2011

I recently ran a one day workshop on Improvisation of Leadership with my amazing friend and colleague, Steve Lockwood. ( Steve, is an harmonica player par excellence with a profound ability to get across his love of music,  and the harmonica in particular.

I met Steve, when I attended one of his workshops. Some of you may know, I originally trained as a classical singer and have more than a passing acquaintance with what good music should sound and feel like and it wasn’t me on the harmonica. It got me thinking about what was stopping me. Yes, the harmonica is a harder instrument to play than you might think but on the other hand it is a self harmonising instrument so it is harder to make a bad sound. (School’s should take note: an alternative to the dreaded recorder!) But what was stopping me was all the feelings and voices going round and round saying things like: “you know music, you should be able to do this”, ‘=”come on, you should be better at this than that” etc. etc.   And of course the other voice was going: “you are a coach, you should be able to sort this out”. (And those of you that think you don’t have voices in your head, you are just in denial..)

This workshop really got me thinking about how we get in our own ways when in an unfamiliar environment; when we have a little knowledge but may’be not enough and why I suggested to Steve that we might want to run an organisational workshop together….

The phrase I keep hearing around organisations at the moment is “being comfortable with not knowing” – which is true to an extent and only up to a point. There is a lot we do know and the phrase implies letting go of all of this and to focus on what you don’t know and that is where it falls apart for me. Why would you want to put yourself in the position of just focussing on what you don’t know.

There is, for me, an analogy to learning to improvise ( in music and probably in other genres). When I first came across improvisation as a first year uni student, it was with a background of at least 10 years musical knowledge, of knowing what I know. Yet, somehow when learning something new I was somehow  flummoxed and thought I knew nothing. I thought I didn’t know anything about jazz and was lost in a sea of unfamiliar sounds and different terminology, apparently being asked to let go of what I was familiar with and just make it up as I went along. What I now know and was reminded of when working with Steve, is that improvisation is a process of responding in the moment and finding your way with what you already know, drawing on your toolkit of experience and knowledge, to lead yourself and your fellow improvisers through. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So how come some people are great at improvising and other’s just thrash about, panic and eventually drown? Stopping swimming and stopping moving forward.

In this new world, there are no hard and fast rules of how things are to be done. Many of the old rules don’t apply and we are feeling our way forward; improvising as we go along. We can learn a lot from the mind set of musical (or other) improvisers about how they keep their cool and keep a clear head. This is what I discovered when rediscovering my joy in improvising:

Know what you know

To be comfortable not knowing you need to also be comfortable knowing what you know. People who improvise may look like they are making it up as they go along and it is actually a result of practice, thought and reflection, knowing that if I do this it gets a certain result most times. Most improvising musicians have well thought out licks and melodies that they know work individually and they can combine in different ways to get different results. It may feel like that they are making it up as they go along but it is actually as a result of working at an unconscious competence level,   developed from hours of practice, rehearsal and performance.  If you ask them how they did that, they will probably respond that they don’t know and that the muse inspired them. The reality is that they have created a safety net of knowledge that enabled the muse to emerge.

Welcome mistakes

Great Jazz musicians don’t fear or shy away from mistakes and view it as either an opportunity for creation or learning. They often repeat the mistake over and over until they have got the juice out of it and to the listener, it looks like they meant to do it. If the mistake does not bear repeating, they will regroup and move on. The mistake is just part of the process.

Now I’m not saying that in organisations we want to repeat and repeat the mistake (although sometimes that is how great things are invented), it is just that mistakes are an opportunity to be exploited and one that is often ignored. When we create the culture that  mistakes are for learning and making us better at what we do, then we learn how to think in the moment and avoid unrecoverable catastrophes.

Make your own boundaries

Improvisation may feel  like an un-boundaried free for all. In reality, it has mini signposts along the way, which musicians hang onto, listening out for where they are, in any given moment. This can be the cord progression of the song or a certain signature lick of a player or the order of play, bringing everyone together. We need boundaries to make us feel safe and unless we feel safe we don’t perform well. Boundaries provide the edges and give us a sense of surety.

Prepare for the unexpected

In their practice musicians prepare for things going off track and have plans for what they do when this happens. One of the ways that they do this is through exploring errors and another way is having back up plans in place. What if certain musicians are sick? Can anyone else step up to the plate. If the drummer isn’t there who else can keep the rhythm going and provide the momentum?

Be aware of others and play to their strengths

First and foremost musicians have to be great individual players and be part of a team. They have to be able to do both. They have to spend time getting their own skill level at peak and then time getting the groups performance to flow. They have to have both the ego to be an amazing performer and let go of their ego enough to celebrate and nurture the egos of others. They truly understand the concept of ‘it’s not about me except when it is’ providing the space for all to excel.

Lead and then Follow

There always a leader of band and that person has overall responsibility of how the band works and flows together. Then within a great performance leadership can shift between the players depending on what is needed right now, for instance, to capture the essence of the piece or change the energy of the audience. The individuals within the band need enough confidence in each other to let different people take the lead at the right time, in other words they need to allow them to lead and then follow whole heartedly. It develops that person as a performer in their own right and also gives the leader a break from holding it all together, allowing them  to really get to  know each other and how each of them improvises and responds to the flow of the music. It also has the added benefit of strengthening their back up plan and letting them prepare for the unexpected.  If the overall Leader insists on leading all the time (and sometimes doing all the jobs) then the band falls apart as they would be exhausted!

Know your limitations and develop your strengths.

To know your strengths is also to understand your limitations. Great musician’s know what they can and can’t do and their areas of development. They also know the strengths of the rest of the band and all know their main role (but are able to pick up others if necessary). A singer normally carries the melody but could actually do the rhythm if called to.

Great musicians are also honest enough with themselves to know what their limitations (rather than deny them) and concentrate on further developing strength areas to mitigate for this. After all how many people actually noticed that Billie Holliday had a very limited vocal range when she performed with such emotional conviction and musicality?

and most of all  manage your state…. and.Don’t stop

And key to all of this, being all to improvise and respond to any given situation, is the ability to keep a clear ahead and keep going. Great Improvisers don’t stop, they keep responding and making decisions in the moment, because after all when you stop the performance is over.

To find out more about this workshop contact Lucy at

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 3, 2012 2:26 pm

    Just recently one such blunder happened to me. It was one of the biggest gigs of our lives. Our band had spent months preparing for a Nashville showcase, the kind of gig where big shots in the music industry come out and see you play as part of the process to decide if you’re a band they want to throw their industry muscle behind. The room wasn’t filled with Enation fans – these were fairly jaded music executives who were there to, essentially, judge you. I had done quite a bit of groundwork in setting the showcase up, so my heart and mind were full of the months of hard work getting to this point. All of the planning, rehearsals, emails, phone calls, and travel came down to this moment.

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