Leadership Jam

What the incredible genre of jazz music can teach us about leadership.

I first heard the term, “Lead Like Jazz,” from Scott Olson, who is a great leader, a business owner, and the CEO of One Collective (a nonprofit that supports poor and oppressed people around the world).

In his “Lead Like Jazz” article, Olson explains how an orchestra, with a conductor, is like the traditional (classical) style of leadership. “In classical music, someone chooses the song that will be played and hands the musician sheet music. Every note, crescendo, decrescendo, and nuance has been written by the composer. The musician’s ability to play the music exactly as it has been written is paramount. The only true creativity that is allowed comes from the conductor.”

When I first was promoted as a leader, I thought the job was to be a conductor. I assumed I was promoted because I was smart, the best at my job, and I had all the answers. I’d give all the employees the sheet music and they’d follow it along exactly, just like an orchestra. That style of leadership didn’t work very well.

I learned that to be an effective leader, I needed to develop a jazz style of leadership that would complement my more classical approach.


How can adding a jazz approach to your leadership style make you more agile and effective? “When jazz players get together, one of the things they love to do is ‘jam,’” Olson explains. “These sessions typically involve improvisation and playing by ear. There’s no conductor and rarely any sheet music. Someone usually calls out the name of a song. Someone might ask, ‘What key?’ Then the song is under way. What happens next (in my opinion) is the true beauty of jazz.

“The song is moving along when suddenly, one of the musicians hits an interesting note or plays an unusual rhythm,” Olson explains. “Everyone hears it, and suddenly the bass player picks up on what the drummer just did. The piano player hears it, changes what they were playing, and now the sax player is on fire, playing something totally different. It’s all unscripted, but it’s important to note: This isn’t a chaotic free-for-all. Musicians are still playing the song they started, they’re just adding creative nuances to it.”

This is how high-performing and innovative teams function. There isn’t one person directing and everyone else following. It’s a collaboration where the leader sets the vision, with everyone contributing from their area of strength and building off each other’s ideas.


To add jazz leadership principles to a classical style of leading, Olson identified four key attributes:

  1. Risk: The drummer tried something different (took a risk and felt the freedom to). To get fresh ideas and creative results, your team members need to feel free to improvise. Risk means doing what’s difficult and approaching what the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) calls “Last 8%” moments (www.last8percent.com)— those decisions, conversations, and situations that make us uncomfortable and that we often avoid.
  2. Listening: The bass player heard what the drummer did and changed the notes and rhythm. Listening is one of the most important skills for a leader. When people feel heard and that what they have to say matters, their motivation dramatically increases. It doesn’t mean always agreeing with people, but it does mean acknowledging their point of view.
  3. Collaboration: Because there’s no sheet music and no conductor in jazz, the success of the song depends on everyone’s contribution. Great collaboration happens when there is openness to all points of view and people are building on each other’s ideas, not shutting them down.
  4. Awareness: Jazz musicians watch each other, smile, nod, and sometimes use hand gestures. Nobody ever taught them these signals; they just picked them up. Self-awareness is also critical in leadership, but difficult to achieve. A study by Tasha Eurich at Harvard showed 85 to 90 percent of people think they are self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent actually are!


Being self-aware, collaborating, creating an environment where people take risks and approach Last 8% moments are all Emotional Intelligence competencies. When there is tension and conflict, our emotional brain is wired to move us to our fight-or-flight default behaviors. This leads most of us to either avoid doing the things we know we need to do, or moving to a command-and-control style of leadership where we become the conductor.

According to Olson, “in jazz, the ‘groove’ created in the moment determines the outcome (sound, emotion, feeling). In classical style, the composer and conductor have predetermined the outcome. When a leader and team find that ‘leadership groove,’ where they mesh creatively and challenge the sheet music, they can move into an incredible place of synergistic collaboration. Finding the groove is a beautiful thing in a great musical performance, and it is even more priceless when a group of individuals become a committed and creative team.”

To learn more about Scott Olson and subscribe to his “Lead Like Jazz” podcast, look on your favorite podcast app or visit: www.leadlikejazz.com. For more information about Olson’s charitable organization, visit: www.onecollective.org