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:

“What I’ve learned from leading jazz groups, and from being a sideman for that matter, is that a group functions best when the leader is strong, confident, and has a vision. Within the context of that, he must also give the members of the band the feeling that they are totally free to express themselves within the boundaries of what the leader is setting out to do. I often find myself describing an improvising quartet as an excellent example of living, dynamic democracy. The jazz group was born to express the American spirit, and it has evolved into a form that is capable of expressing the spirits of communities of musicians throughout the world.

“The leader needs to pick members who will be compatible, and create an environment of mutual respect. With this in place, the sidemen can relax into a feeling of safety, from which they can explore and take risks without being judged unfairly for mistakes. If the leader is too selfish or demanding, the band members start to see themselves as just being there to do a job and collect a paycheck, and they lose respect for the leader. But more importantly, they become detached from the music and go on autopilot, ceasing to be actively expressing their own true music. On the flip side, if the leader defers too much to others in the band, the sidemen lose respect for him because they expect to be led somewhere interesting. This situation can result in everyone acting like a leader to pick up the slack in the band, and arguments over decision making and the direction of the music inevitably ensue.

“Then there’s the issue of “swing”. There’s the fundamental level of swing where everyone is feeling the beat together, and the music has natural momentum. Then there’s the next level where four artists all hearing the music in its moment of creation together generate an incredible propulsion. The rush of that stream carries each individual and the group into a place where they are all playing in a way that no one imagined before or could possibly recreate. The music is not only in the moment, it is of the moment. That’s what I live for! Occasionally it happens, and I dream of the day when I can play enough and have enough work for my band to live in that place more.

“So I see the wisdom of team leadership lying in the ability to acknowledge and nurture each individual’s freedom and creativity while simultaneously having the vision to create a group dynamic that takes the individuals bound together to a new and unforeseen place.”

Editor’s Note: I was fortunate enough to catch Tim in concert in San Francisco this past weekend. I was impressed with the way the musicians in his quartet listened intently to each other without trying to upstage one another. The goal was always to keep the music moving forward, and to make others look good. It reminded me of the way my favorite NBA team, the Golden State Warriors, have been playing basketball this year: without egos…completely oriented toward team performance rather than individual statistics.

Business leaders can learn much from the world of jazz improv. Before your next team meeting, consider asking yourself the following questions:

Do I have a strong, confident vision for my team, and if so, what is it and have I communicated it sufficiently?

Am I taking people somewhere “interesting”?

Do I provide my “sidemen” the freedom to express themselves within the boundaries of my vision?

On the other hand, am I providing so much freedom that my team members are left confused about the direction they’re being asked to take?

Do we “swing” as a team? Are we attaining that feeling of flow in which people are functioning at their highest performance level? If not, what aspects of my leadership style might be preventing this?

When it comes to teamwork, let the spirits of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington be your guide.

(Visit Tim Armacost on the web at www.timarmacost.com)

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