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Learning Collective Leadership - From Musicians

What a wonderful, rewarding day I had last Thursday….

I had the usual facilitator's excited, anticipatory feelings that morning as the 46 leadership session participants streamed into the room with curious, even confused looks on their faces. Things looked little different than expected. At the front of of the conference room there were eight musicians set up. A pianist, drummer, bassist, violist, two violinists, a cellist, and a trumpeter. Correction. Trumpeter-composer-conductor-educator-cultural ambassador. Mr. Orbert Davis.

The participants knew they were gathering for a leadership workshop. They were the extended leadership team for some regional units of a government organization which was undergoing significant organizational and cultural change. They seemed puzzled and maybe a bit reticent by the presence of the musicians. I encouraged them to come on up and sit up close to the musicians - really close.

I provided a brief introduction - explaining the need for effective collective leadership in their VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment. That the musicians were there to give us an experience of exquisite collective leadership.

The leaders were asked to listen differently and to pay attention to not just what they heard, but also how the musicians interacted. The first piece of music they heard was classical and featured the string players. What was that like? "Exciting. Fierce. Precise. Excellent. Intense." What did you notice about the musicians? They were following their score, their conductor. Well-rehearsed and coordinated. What parts of your work as leaders is "classical?" "Our processes have to work well. We have to deliver a service predictably and consistently. We are accountable to taxpayers. We can't have mistakes."

Next, the rhythm section played some jazz - with solos, improvisation, call-and-response. The participants swayed, tapped their feet, nodded in time - as did all eight musicians. What was that like? "Swinging. Collaborative. A conversation. They were enjoying themselves. Really listening to each other. Supporting each other, even as someone else soloed." What aspects of your leadership work are, or might need to be, "jazz?" "Trying to engage and support our staff. Need to be innovative and improve things. Being inclusive of differences. Trust and open communication among our leadership group." The participant responses came faster, were more numerous, with more energy, more to say, more enthusiasm. They were at the edge of their seats.

I felt excited, with a sense of unity of mind and spirit developing in the room. Hard to describe, but palpable.

Next the Double Quartet played a Third Stream (rare, unique integration of classical and jazz) piece. What was that like? Was it jazz or classical? "Both! First I heard one, then the other. It told a story, with a theme, with emotion. I got goosebumps. It was amazing!" So, in what ways does your work need to be "Third Stream?" "Most of it. We need to lead with both classical and jazz. We have a hard time transitioning from classical to jazz. We are more comfortable with classical, but we need to change." The energy, enthusiasm, and sense of shared meaning continued to build. As did the power of the metaphor. Like many organizations, theirs needed to become less hierarchical, more partnership-based. And it was up to the leaders to make that happen.

The group then engaged in dialogue with Orbert Davis - the trumpeter-conductor-composer of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic - and the musicians. The leaders described qualities they wanted to bring into their evolving culture, and the challenges associated with doing that. Orbert and the musicians responded with their experiences in the cultures of both classical and jazz, what they had to learn, and unlearn. The discomfort they experience. How they trust and listen. How they deploy and enjoy their differences. How they all lead in different ways. How Orbert creates an environment for collaboration and learning. The conversation was so rich, and the leaders were so engaged. It could have gone on for hours. But lunch time and hungry bellies were calling.

So the leaders called out some themes they had learned from the morning session, saying that they felt there was so much more, that ideas and light bulbs and insights were percolating under the surface and would develop in them for some time. Then the ensemble played a beautiful, inspiring closing piece and were rewarded with a rousing standing ovation.

It was an incredible morning of discovery. Now how in the world was I going to follow that act with my solo afternoon session on collective change leadership??? It felt like a daunting task, but I was so inspired and felt so connected to everyone in the room, I knew it would be fine. It was. The group continued to connect with each other in new, deeper ways. Their eagerness to be better leaders - together - led to greater interpersonal risk-taking, collective self-awareness and commitments abut how they would lead more collaboratively.

Once again, I experienced the transformative power of music. To be able to bring that to a client leadership session is a thrill and an honor.

If you'd like to explore leadership development or catalyzing culture change through music, get in touch for a free 20-minute consultation.

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