“Jazzing” Up Your Leadership Style

I first met today’s guest writer, New York jazzman Tim Armacost, in college almost 30 years ago, at a time when both of us were grappling not only with what kind of careers we wanted to pursue, but also with what kind of adults we wanted to become. While I eventually chose team development, training and coaching, Tim has been traveling the globe these last 25 years, pursuing a career as a professional tenor saxophonist — living in such exotic locations as Amsterdam, Delhi, and Tokyo. His CDs, including Live at Smalls, The Wishing Well, and Brightly Dark, have received high praise from the Washington Post and the Jazz Times. Fluent in Japanese, Tim is also a longtime student of Zen Buddhism; his meditation practice infuses his music and contributes strongly to his relaxed yet passionate performance style.

Today I asked Tim to share a few of his thoughts on team leadership ­ from a jazz improv perspective. Here are his insightful comments:

The Seahawks’ Super “Mistake”

“You’re either a mistake maker or a life learner.” –Anonymous

pete carroll

Given that over 120 million viewers were watching the end of Super Bowl XLIX this past Sunday, the chances are fairly good that at least some (if not most) of you witnessed the puzzling play calling from Seattle Seahawks’ coach, Pete Carroll. Here was the situation. Down by four points with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks have possession of the ball with one yard separating them from the end zone and, most likely, their second consecutive Super Bowl victory. The common-sense call is to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch, a bowling ball of a human being with the nickname “Beast Mode”. Lynch who, on the previous play, pounded ahead for four yards, has already run for over 100 yards in the game, demonstrating time and again that the Patriots can’t mount much resistance when a short gain is required of him. Everyone in the stadium (including this writer) is expecting a safe, off-tackle plunge from Lynch. But then something remarkable happens; the Seahawks’ brilliant young quarterback, Russell Wilson, unexpectedly drops back for a pass and slings the ball over the middle in the direction of wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, knifing towards the goal line. Against all odds, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler steps in front of Lockette and intercepts the ball, essentially ending the game and handing New England their 4th Super Bowl victory.

What could Pete Carroll have been thinking?

Engagement starts at home

Back in 1987, while wrapping up a stint as an English teacher in Japan, my college buddy Tim came out to Tokyo for a visit. An old-Japan hand from childhood when his father was a diplomat in the country, Tim (now a jazz musician in New York) knew a great deal, first hand, about the sometimes alienating aspects of living in Japan as an ex-patriot. I doubt if he was overly-surprised, then, to find the 24-year-old me in a negative state regarding the local culture and society.

Me: “Boy am I glad to be getting out of here soon! This place is crazy.”

The Samurai and the Zen Master

A noted samurai general in old Japan visits a venerable Zen master at his temple in imperial Kyoto. Says the samurai: “Master, I have spent my entire adult life waging war after war with my enemies. I am ready now to turn my attention to my salvation.

The Zen master — bald, 70 years old, with wisdom lines twinkling around his eyes — famed throughout the country for his sage teachings, responds: “Visit me again in one month. During that time, meditate 90 minutes a day.”

What is Play?

I’d like to introduce you to my cat, Ava. At 15-20 pounds, 8-year-old Ava is one big Maine Coon feline. To say that she is a big as a raccoon doesn’t do her magnificent physique justice. When viewed from behind, the seated Ava is almost perfectly pear-shaped. When she spreads out on the ground, as she’s wont to do, Ava’s not just lying around the house…she’s truly lying around the house. And I say all this with utter love and affection.

Life’s Three, Hidden Opportunities

As many of you probably know from reading my articles and blogs over the years, I’m a long-time volleyball player. Not that I’m an “A+” player, mind you… At 5’9”, I’m not exactly spiking the ball over people. But whatever the outcome, I do love getting out there and running around with my Sunday group of drop-in volleyballers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Over my 20 years of v-ball Sundays, I’ve been repeatedly astonished by how uncannily the game parallels life and, most particularly, the psycho-social dynamics in the workplace.

Big Hero 6 and the Heroes Quest

In my last blog (The “Quest” for Success), I explored the concept of the “quest” and how it relates to both the Indiana Jones films of the 80s as well as the workplace of today. Since them, my fascination with the quest model has further deepened upon encountering my friend, Gail Whipple’s, brilliant take on the hero’s journey, what she calls the “Heroes Circle”. According to Gail’s model, a hero typically goes through five stages on the course of a quest, namely:

The “Quest” for Success

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a complete sucker for the Indiana Jones movies, particular parts 1-3. Part four, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008), never really did it for me – a bit too little too late. But ah, the first three segments, released between 1981 and 1989; they were amazing! In an Indiana Jones film from the 80’s, you had it all: a young Harrison Ford, action, excitement, humor, swashbuckling, exotic locales, beautiful heroines, etc. I put those three movies right up there with the very best Hollywood actioners, series like Star Wars, Back to the Future and Die Hard. But my question for you today is: were any of these stories “quests”? And what does this all have to do with teams and workplace engagement? To answer this, we have to come to some agreement on what a “quest” actually is.

Out-of-the-Food-Truck Thinking

I recently watched a sly little movie on DVD called Chef (2014), starring writer/director/actor John Favreau, that really brings home the perils of sacrificing engagement for practicality, and which demonstrates how things can begin turning around when you start following your heart.

For you movie buffs, you’ll remember Favreau from his debut in Swingers (1996), a humorous portrait of young wannabe-actors (including a very young, thin Vince Vaughn) immersed in LA’s stylish, neo-lounge scene. In Chef, by contrast, Favreau couldn’t be farther from a swinging, 20-something hipster.

The Six Basic Needs

There’s a lot of talk in the management world these days about boosting “employee engagement”, and for good reason. People are what matter most in an organization – not capital reserves, not resources, not even products and services. Engaged, inspired, motivated employees are what drive the success of an organization… so why, then, is so little actually being done to increase the happiness and well-being of your company’s most vital assets—your people?

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