Jazz vs Orchestra: A question of control?


Andrea asks: Is it control that best defines the difference between leader as Symphony conductor or Leader of a Jazz Quartet? Or is it something else? Let us know your thoughts.

When a jazz leader sits down to count in his band: 1, 2…. 1, 2, 3, 4 he or she doesn’t really know what is going to happen. Once he counts in and then sits back among his band members, he has faith that he has talented musicians and that they will produce a quality show. Unlike a classical orchestra or a pop musical group, each performance of a jazz standard is a unique and emergent creation. The Orchestra Conductor, standing at a pedestal with a baton, is unquestionably the in-the-moment leader. He stands at the front, everyone watches him, the hierarchies are clear, the lines of decision-making are coherent, and the goal is replicable and precise.
The Jazz Leader, sitting with his musicians, sets the stage for the performance, but then becomes a contributor. There is much agreement that happens before the performance can start – the song, the key, the tempo, the feel or type of jazz, and a huge nod to tradition and history – yet the performance is improvised and new each time.
When thinking of complex adaptive systems, there are many aspects of Jazz that are fascinating and created fresh in the moment – including leading with less control but full responsibility, following while leading, listening with presence, and living with ambiguity.
Think of this — the Jazz leader and the Classical conductor have many different skills. The Classical conductor is an exquisite example of a great hierarchical leader. There are times in our organizations that we require replicable and precise results, and need a leader who has been accorded the control and unquestioning followership similar to an orchestra conductor. But there are also times when there are several agents all with something new to say, when listening and building on each other generates necessary innovation and creativity, and where the leader needs to set the necessary agreements and then get out of the way of the music.
Leadership is emergent. Different scenarios require different behaviours from both leaders and followers. It’s important to be both aware of the situational requirements of leadership and followership, to be able to move smoothly between those two roles, and flexible enough to be able to change course as the situation requires.

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