11 Leadership Lessons from Jazz Musicians

Josh Linkner
March 17, 2019

Josh Linkner

Five-time tech entrepreneur, hyper-growth CEO, NY Times bestselling author and venture capitalist.

For over 40 years, I’ve proudly worn the title of jazz guitarist. Deeply passionate about the art form, I performed my way through college and continue to savor the delicious melodies of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Ironically it was jazz – not B-school – that gave me the foundation to win in the business world. While on the surface it would seem that jazz musicianship is the polar opposite of running a business, the two practices are linked in numerous ways.

Just as you’d learn a great deal from a trusted advisor, so too can non-traditional sources help you to expand your knowledge base. Jazz musicians are agile and dynamic, carrying their group’s song and themes through the diversified landscape to the end.

For this very reason, let’s explore how a jazz musician leads and what we can learn from their artistry and execution. Here are some powerful takeaways I’ve picked up along the way from incredible musician leaders–let these lessons shine at your business, and your results will get a lot swankier.

1. Playing it safe gets you tossed off the stage. Some executives would say that in today’s turbulent economy, takings risks isn’t wise. If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all.
2. There are no do-overs in live performances. For every hour in a “performance” setting, you should spend five hours practicing. Athletes do this, musicians do this–muscle memory is no different in the board room, in front of a new client, or with your team. So why aren’t you doing this?
3. Listening to those around you is three times more important than what you play yourself. If you’re the one talking all the time, you’re not learning anything. Listen, absorb what you hear, and use the information to make a conscious choice about whatever you’re facing.
4. There’s a time to stand out as a soloist and a time to support others and make them shine. You rocked a project–nicely done. Praise is well-deserved. However, as a leader, it’s more likely the case that your team members rocked a project, together. Susie was on top of her game with the slide deck? Tell her–and tell the client. Johnny couldn’t have articulated the challenge to the press any more astutely? Refer back to his commentary as a stellar example. When you can share the wealth, everyone wins.
5. Expect surprises and adversity, since jazz (and life) is about how you respond and adapt. If running a business was always smooth sailing, everyone would do it. That being said, the old adage explains that “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Anticipate hurdles and maximize your team’s effort to jump over them.
6. Know your audience. If you’re playing for a group that’s looking forward to something slow and calming and you get on stage and play a wild and crazy, upbeat riff, nobody will dig it–even if it’s a well-crafted piece. Your customers are the same. If you’re not working to provide them with something they want and need, you’re doomed to fail.
7. It’s always better leaving people wanting more, rather than less. Of course as you live and breathe your business, you have a visceral urge to share every piece of minutia with anyone who asks. Don’t. Instead of pouring it all on at once, give people a teaser, so they crave the next bit you explain. In similar fashion, don’t try and launch 15 products at once for a new line; start with one or two to get people begging for more.
8. The best leaders are those that make others sound good. Big band leaders bring out the best in their troupes–during a sax solo, his job is to make sure the drum line supports the sax player with a quality backdrop to make the riff shine especially bright. Are you putting these pieces together on your team? Where could someone excel that they’re being held back? Shatter those boundaries and encourage creativity to soar.
9. Pattern recognition is easier than raw genius. If you drive the same way to work every day for a year, you’re bound to learn about–and avoid–the pothole on Main Street that you pass each time. Jazz is no different; if you’ve played combinations countless times, it becomes second nature to pair new things together based on previous patterns. So too in business, seasoned executives and professionals have seen so many types of people, deals, projects, and processes, so it becomes much easier for them to avoid these proverbial potholes, rather than having to start from scratch every time.
10. Shy musicians are starving artists. If you’re playing a gig, you get paid when there’s butts in seats, so you can’t be shy in telling people about the upcoming show. Why haven’t you been this bold in your new product launch? Are your employees evangelical about your company’s culture? Are your vendors singing your praises?
11. Keeping it new and fresh is mandatory. Jazz has its roots in real-time, collaborative innovation, just like the act of starting and growing companies. If you’re not actively seeking new challenges and ways to expand your horizons, you are automatically falling behind.

Legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck put it best, and his words resonate not only on stage for musicians but also in life for business leaders. As he so eloquently described it, “There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play, which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”

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