Beyond Clever – Leadership in a Different Key

“One of the paradoxes of improvisation is that it’s a mixture of two opposites—tremendous discipline and regimen balanced by spontaneity, listening, and playing in the moment.” – Gary Burton, vibraphone player

Despite our efforts at definitional packaging, something remains elusive about the notion of leadership, something that is unaccounted for when we are done with behavioural and competency profiling. It is that something, I suspect, that made Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, hesitate when asked if he thought it possible to train people to be Level 5 leaders. These are individuals he describes as possessing a paradoxical combination of powerful will and personal humility.

I recently thought of this when I saw Charlie Rose interview one of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy. Rose asked him what it was like to work with fellow actor Judi Dench. Nighy said that Dench manages to do what very few actors can do and that is to arrive on stage “unarmed” and let the evening happen to her. He went on to say that this requires courage and a generosity of spirit because it means going on stage without tricks or a Plan B. “She’s beyond clever,” said Nighy.

The great jazz pianist Bill Mays said something similar when asked what it was like to make music with people he had never worked with before, a not uncommon experience for jazz musicians. “As long as they’re egoless and fearless, it will be fine,” was his response. And, in a similar vein, the psychologist Gordon Allport talks of tentativeness and commitment. “Taken by itself, tentativeness is disintegrative; commitment is integrative. Yet the blend seems to occur in personalities that we admire for their soundness and perspective.”

Egoless and fearless; humble and powerful; tentative and committed. Beyond clever indeed!

The case that can be made for the value of these paradoxical combinations resides in another paradox: possessing institutional power makes one potentially vulnerable. By extension, the person with the most institutional power—a CEO, for example—is potentially the most vulnerable. After all, the leadership paradigm that has dominated our imaginations holds that leaders are to be fearless, powerful, and committed but surely not egoless, humble, and tentative.

Here’s how it works: We are only as smart as what we know. Because organizational leaders are dependent on others to tell them what they ought to know, they are only as smart as what people choose to tell them. What little fish choose to tell big fish is largely a function of how little fish calculate consequences. And what little fish have learned is that it is always better to calculate on the side of self-preservation. Bottom line? Organizations do not become terrific if they are populated with wary little fish.

The success of the improvised jazz performance depends upon the leader’s ability to enter into the performance “unarmed”. This, in turn, makes it possible for the other musicians to, as it were, laydown their arms. What is aimed for here is the creation of an environment in which, in Bill Mays’s terms, the “egoless and fearless” can create their musical magic.

Does it involve risk? Of course it does-real learning does not happen without it. But in an environment of uncertainty-and that most certainly is the defining characteristic of our age-we, individually and collectively, either learn or we die. Of course in situations where everyone is egoless and fearless, humble and powerful, tentative and committed, it is pretty hard to spot the “real” leader because it could be anybody. Nothing wrong with that, huh?

A former HR executive, Brian Hayman is a jazz musician and organization development consultant who teaches in the Queen’s IRC Leadership Capacity program.

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