Leadership: The Mercy of Not Being in Control

Is leadership synonymous with control?

Buddha in meditation, religious concept

The question troubled me over the past week. I encountered a number of people who think leadership is, in large part, the ability to manage – ie, control – outcomes. A leader, the theory goes, leads and in doing so is at the center of all activity, a kind of organizational architect. The leader sets the tone, creates the vision, makes things happen through others.

But what if at the heart of leadership is the willingness to give up control, to put oneself into the flow of energy inside and outside the company and then, like a great jazz musician, dive completely into it to emerge deeply connected and able to pull the organization, or the market, toward a new end?

In November 2011, jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris brought his ensemble to TED Salon NY2011. His talk – “There Are No Mistakes On the Bandstand” – puts the question of leadership to the test, through the lens of jazz.

Harris notes that in jazz, micromanaging limits (artistic) possibilities. Holding too tightly to control, as Harris illustrates on stage, forces your fellow team members to retreat, mistrust their own instincts and ultimately create a limited product.

If control doesn’t work, how can a leader lead? Harris’ method is to “…be patient, listen and pull from what is going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musicians and they give you more and gradually it builds.”

They give you more and gradually it builds. Simple, skillful and well suited for any enterprise that requires full engagement of skills and abilities. Harris’ example is servant leadership at its highest level. So why does it seem such an approach is incredibly rare?

Perhaps it lies in the day-to-day confusion over what makes a leader vs. a manager.

As Steve Nguyen, PhD, points out in Workplace Psychology, although the two practices overlap, in many ways they are fundamentally different. Managers are concerned with executing orders, making each day as smooth and predictable as the last. Leaders articulate a collective vision, forge a path, move forward. Now, imagine replacing the center stage aspects of traditional leadership with the servant leader example of a jazz ensemble. It’s easy to picture the servant leader moving in, about and around with ease, ever ready to find the right moment to pull forward or recede to listen to the collective wisdom of the whole, be it organization, market or society.

Three and a half years after the death of Steve Jobs, his imprint as a leader remains deeply embedded in the business psyche. Hard to please, driven, mercurial and stone-cold focused, his implacability is well-known. But he also had the ability to move, on occasion, out of the sun to tap into what was around him. He was, after all, a long-standing practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Additionally, he’s attributed with having posted Miles Davis’ seminal jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue as one of his favorite albums in a defunct iTunes page called Ping Profile. The album opens with the incomparable “So What” track, all interplay of musician and tone and rhythm. A track about listening and pulling from what is going on, a track that itself is a meditation on leadership.

So I return again to the question “Is leadership synonymous with control?” I find myself clearly answering “No, it is not.”  Leadership requires the courage to exert strong influence and control, as needed, but it is not itself an exercise in control. Rather, smart, effective leadership is all about knowing when to step forward, when to pull back and when to take the knowledge gained to help create something new. It’s simply a kind of jazz, man.





One Comment

  1. Maria Dax June 21, 2015 Reply

    I agree fully.

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