This is my first article for Open for Business, and because of my background (see all the way below), I decided to explore parallel lessons between business leadership and music industry leadership. For me, the idea of a ‘business rockstar’ is all about being connected to your passion and purpose and has little to do with looking in mirrors, inflated egos etc. as some pundits have dared to suggest. Great leaders in every field share certain abilities, whether these are innate, developed through experience or both.

We’re no longer conducting

In the industrial revolution, much leadership was about central control and work was standardized in the era of mass production. This allowed leaders to command their enterprises from a central point, rather like a conductor in an orchestra. The environment is different now. It’s VUCA, or:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

Now, leaders need to learn to work with different leadership styles other than just telling and selling, towards more collaborative approaches to leading and managing. This is especially so for what I call Brain Based Enterprises (BBEs) where intellect, ideas and imagination are at the heart of the enterprise’s raison d’être and where mass customisation is expected as a basic rite of passage to succeed in business.

What, then, are the alternative ways of thinking about organizational design?

Jazzing up your business

 “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz” – Lou Reed

An attractive metaphor for business has been that of jazz, implying self-organising leadership and the use of improvisation as core skills. The metaphor was popularised by Professor John Kao, who used examples such as Charlie Parker to illustrate his ideas. It is a fine metaphor for extremely agile companies — for example small Research and Development start ups and entrepreneurial enterprises, yet, in extremis, jazz requires exceptionally high skill levels and it is difficult to scale all channel improvisation in business where everyone improvises with everyone else. All-channel improvisation at work can also be tremendously wasteful.

So, a freeform jazz approach to business may well be ineffective and expensive apart from in the smallest, brightest enterprises. Contrary to popular belief, jazz musicians use structure and discipline in order to produce seamless performances as I discovered when interviewing Marcus Anderson, Prince’s sax player.

If your business is larger than the proverbial “shed” from which HP grew, then improvisation must take place within some shared structures and disciplines. As Sir Richard Branson points out, most businesses find it hard to do complex things so a simpler model is required to do complex things.

Let there be rock

Most rock music has opportunities for improvisation but a simpler structure and some levels of distributed leadership. At the extreme, groups like AC/DC play a steady 4/4 beat – what musicians call “four to the floor” and leadership passes between Angus Young and Brian Johnson, whilst the backline do the really important work by holding the whole thing together as I discovered when interviewing AC/DC’s drummer Chris Slade.

Comparing the different models, we can see the links and contradictions. Business leadership is not a “one size fits all” affair and each model has its applications and bandwidth for different enterprises:

Business Models and Music Styles

Why does this matter?

In IBM’s Global Survey less than 50% of global CEOs believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment. So, questions of leadership style for a disruptive world and the ability to improvise in a structured way become key. I explore these subject in greater depth in a new book for Bloomsbury entitled “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”. For now, I will leave you with two summary points on improvisation and three questions on leadership style.

  • Leadership style must change in a VUCA world – it is no longer good enough or even feasible to attempt to conduct your enterprise from a central command point. Approaches to organisational design that are based on distributed leadership must be employed.
  • Leaders can learn much about coping with ambiguity from the study of musical artforms, particularly those that involve improvisation such as rock music, blues or jazz.

And now, consider these three questions:

  • When do you need to lead like an orchestra conductor?
  • When is it more useful to lead like a jazz musician or a rocker?
  • How do you effectively signal your intentions to others so that your leadership style is read by others and responded to authentically?

About Peter Cook

Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock. He offers keynotes, masterclasses coaching and mentoring on leadership, creativity, and innovation. Author and contributor to 11 books, acclaimed by Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham, Harvey Goldsmith and Tom Peters. Peter won a prize for his work from Sir Richard Branson and writes for Virgin.com. 18 years in science, 18 years teaching MBA’s, 18 + years running a business and all his life playing music.

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