Leadership Lessons from the Most Feared Jazz Song Ever Written

Josh Linkner

Josh Linkner

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

Ask any jazz aficionado about the most challenging jazz standard ever written, and you'll likely get a knowing smile followed by two simple words: Giant Steps. The tune, composed and performed by legendary saxophone genius John Coltrane, has sent chills down the spines of would-be performers since its release nearly 60 years ago.

Performed at a blistering speed, the structure is a 180-degree departure from the unwritten rules of jazz. From a technical standpoint, it is as far from the norm as is musically possible, making it extremely difficult for even the most talented and experienced musicians to navigate. Despite the song's demanding nature, it has become a history-making classic that is both feared and revered.

As a jazz musician myself (for over 40 years), I've often reflected on this treacherous tune. Full of irony, its complexity created its beauty. Its difficulty demands respect. Its unorthodoxy made it unforgettable. I began to wonder are there lessons from this masterful work that could apply to us mere mortals? Here are three struck me:

1. Chase the hard stuff. While cutting corners and seeking simplicity is easy, that is not the stuff of legends. Coltrane sought to tackle the most difficult structure he could imagine and, in turn, made history. Just because something is hard, it doesn't mean it should be shuttered. In fact, greatness is often achieved in the face of adversity and complexity.

2.Break the rules. Despite the free-flowing nature of jazz, there are some inherent rules that were not to be broken. Until Coltrane rewrote those guardrails while creating something fresh, compelling, and magical. Too often, the constraints we believe are unbreakable reveal beauty and success when violated. Giant Steps is a legendary song because the rules were broken. Think what you can create by shattering - not complying - with the traditional rules of engagement.

3.Show up fully prepared. The one unfortunate part of the 1960 Giant Steps recording is the solo by Detroiter Tommy Flanagan, one of the best pianists in history. Flanagan, a consummate pro, had been to dozens of recording sessions in the past and cranked out masterful work. Thinking he didn't need to prepare, he was caught off guard with the complexity and boldness of Giant Steps. As a result, he stumbled through the solo with obvious difficultly, producing an uninspired and awkward improvisation. The embarrassment - one of very few in his 61-year career – continued to haunt him until his passing in 2001. The lesson here: never underestimate an upcoming battle. It is a truism that applies to music, business, and life.

50 years after his death, the breathtaking work of John Coltrane still inspires musicians today. Coltrane made history by applying these three principles to his most famous composition. Think what you can do when applying the same approaches to your career, company, and community.

Music to my ears.

The post Leadership Lessons from the Most Feared Jazz Song Ever Written appeared first on Josh Linkner.

Making Mistakes
In school, we're taught that mistakes should be avoided at all costs. We learn that getting something wrong somehow means that we're wrong as a human beings, that each mistake translates to a lower self-worth score. These dreaded slip-ups can be so hurtful that we learn to recoil from the very thought of stumbling, much like we avoid the hot sto...
Read More
The Mother of Dragons
Spoiler Alert! (if you haven't caught up on GOT, stop reading and JUMP to "SPOILER START" below) Wow. How incredible that the woman who built her career on kindness and empathy turned every heartfelt follower to ash this week. The power of the loyalty that she built was, prior to this week, unstoppable. Her motives pure and sincere, and those th...
Read More
The Last 10%
I was nearing the end of my three-mile run (I'm no marathon candidate), and was feeling awful. Tired, hot, sore, and ready to throw in the towel. Looking at the fitness app on my phone, I realized that I only had 10% remaining. As much as I wanted to quit, I forged ahead and completed the full run as planned. That moment of difficulty, angst, an...
Read More
Leadership Lessons from the Most Feared Jazz Song Ever Written
Ask any jazz aficionado about the most challenging jazz standard ever written, and you'll likely get a knowing smile followed by two simple words: Giant Steps. The tune, composed and performed by legendary saxophone genius John Coltrane, has sent chills down the spines of would-be performers since its release nearly 60 years ago. Performed at ...
Read More
How Google Kills Ideas to Drive Killer Innovation
According to its tombstone, Trendalyzer was a data trend viewing platform that lived a happy life from 2007-2017. Latitude, a location-aware feature of Google Maps, was just over 4 years old before it was euthanized in 2013. Fabric, a platform that helped mobile teams build better apps, was sentenced to death after only one month of life. All in...
Read More
Nine Simple Pre-Game Questions to Maximize Business Results
There's an old saying in the boxing world: "Champions don't become champions in the ring, they are merely recognized there." The implication, of course, is that hard work, day after day, in the cold gym is what enables a fighter to win. This makes sense in many areas of life. "Sweat more in practice, bleed less in war," is the basis of the Spa...
Read More
Lifelong Kindergarten
Peeking into a typical kindergarten classroom, you'll see a vibrant setting of creativity and collaboration. The colorful setting is messy, playful, and expressive as students smile with delight and their imaginations run free. Unfortunately, the creative wonder we experience as small children often declines in each subsequent year as we confron...
Read More
Is Your Work Environment a Greenhouse or a Prison?
A friend of mine's passion is growing orchids. We're talking perfect, exotic, contest-winning orchids. To get the best results, she does her work in a greenhouse. An environment that is perfectly situated to maximize growth. It fosters the ideal conditions for the natural act of creation. It's pretty obvious that orchids grow better in a lush gr...
Read More
11 Leadership Lessons from Jazz Musicians
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 ...
Read More
You're Always Interviewing
You hardly slept the night before and arrived to the meeting 25 minutes early. You were wearing your favorite outfit and were fully prepared to put your best foot forward. No, I'm not talking about your first date, but rather that job interview that landed you your gig. Think about how you were fully present, asked thoughtful questions, and ...
Read More