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This piece is about music, audiences and leadership. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure to attend a lecture by Frank Barrett, who compared organizations to Jazz. The essence of Jazz is its improvisation. Barrett (1998) described seven characteristics of Jazz improvisation and has made the link with organizational learning and management. (
In this blog I want to discuss the importance of the audience and the link to leadership.
Jazz & audiences
Years ago I was at a concert of the Gino Latucca Quartet (which was at the time a Quintet), a Belgian Jazz combo. They played in a Jazz pub called “De Versteende Nacht” in my hometown of Bruges. I went there with friends who did not particularly like Jazz. For them it was shere torture. So after the second set they asked me, urged me or begged me to leave the place. I remember that they played lengthy solos. Not all of it was brilliant, but there was some good stuff. It occurred to me that maybe playing Jazz was more fun than listening to it. And much depends on the tolerance that the audience has for the improvisation. So this entails a risk. What if you are so immersed in improvisation that you are losing the audience?
Musicians do not necessarily need the audience to play music. They find meaning in the process of playing music itself. More, many musicians say that they forget about the audience when playing. When playing music you can get immersed completely without any audience and you might end up toying with your instrument for a lengthy time. It might be a good thing that no audience is around when this happened.
My first Jazz concert I attended to was in 1985. Philippe Cathérine was playing with the late bass player Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (NHOP, the Dane with the never ending name). I was stunned. For me as a 16-year old boy – this was a discovery. I had never heard anything like it. The freedom of playing, the taking turns of solos, the apparent easiness with which was played, the licks, … Coming home after that experience I ran immediately to the old piano we had at home to try some of it. It was inspirational although the music I played stunk. What I had also noticed during that concert was that there were some members in the audience who were also so immersed in the music that it was like if they were in a trance. They were imitating the guitar, and the drums, like if it were they who played. At that time it made me smile. Now I realize they were synchronizing and they went into flow together with the musicians.
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But what happens if this doesn’t happen? Suppose that you as a musician do not have listeners because you’re way off from what they are used to hear or what they prefer? What happens if your customers do not follow you? Check the scene from the movie Back to the Future where Marty McFly starts to play hardrock, more than 30 years before the genre had been invented

Funny to see how the audience is bewildered. Artists might not care too much about that. They produce art for its own sake. So will they not compromise?
Sometimes they will have to change and adapt to what the audience wants. So even great artists have played in bars or tea-rooms in order to make a living. Johannes Brahms for one played popular music in bars when he was young just to make a living. He had to play popular music in order to survive. This did not prevent him from producing some of the finest music ever written. Sometimes musicians lend themselves to something which must be awful for them.
So there’s an issue. Suppose that you only can reach an audience by playing things you don’t want to play. Or vice-versa that hardly anyone shows up when you play what you want to play ? Where’s the meaningfulness in that? Like I said, musicians do not need an audience to play music.
But good musicians choose what they play, whom they play it with. They will apply to play in great orchestras or combos because of their reputation, their musical leader. In the music world there are conductors who attract talent just because of what they do, what they stand for. These orchestras have an audience because of the performance of those musicians (I admit there is some snobbery in music as well, a been there – have you seen me mentality). And they will have an audience.
An example from the classical music scene: end of april 2011 I saw Philippe Jarousky in a concert with L’Arpeggiata. Now for those of you who do not know Philippe Jaroussky, he’s a French contra tenor who is conquering the classical. L’Arpeggiata is a Baroque orchestra that experiments with old music combining it with some other styles. So it could well be that you hear a Jazz bass line in a baroque music piece. What happens? Fellow musicians detest it. They say that you have to stick to the rules, that it is not done to be eclectic. Vivaldi did not use those bass lines. You have to stick to what has been intended. No messing around with that kind of music. It’s sacrilege.
However, the audience loves it. What they’re doing is not so spectacular, but it sounds great, it surprises, it makes you laugh. The audience has a good feeling when they leave the music hall. So there’s a way of producing some of the finest music ever written with othere ingredients and you get something new.
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Good musicians do not need to make compromises and they will reach their audiences. In the case of Jazz or classical music this audience might be smaller. Popular music reaches larger crowds. In the case of the smaller crowd, the risk exists that the musician forgets about his audience and that he plays for himself. When I played contemporary music for the recorder I noticed that playing the music was much more pleasant than listening to it. One of the concerts I remembered the most was a concert by the cello player Arne Deforce. I don’t exactly remember what he had played, but it was a very modern piece of music that sounded awful to my untrained ears. The musical director of the concertgebouw in Brugge got so excited about it that he jumped on stage after the performance, applauding the musicians and then he announced proudly that Arne Deforce had agreed to play the same piece again, since you need to listen to modern music more than once to understand it. He might have been right, but I ran out of the concert hall not willing to undergo such an ordeal again.
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You have to know that he is one of the most acclaimed modern cello players. But he does not compromise on stage.
So what about leaders? Do leaders compromise? Yes they might. Do they do what is expected ? They do. But they will not compromise on the target that needs to be achieved. They will however leave a lot of space to the members of their team. True leaders will not tell team members how to achieve the objective but be surprised by the improvisation of their team.
Once I’ve met a conductor of a classical orchestra who compared leadership in a company to being a conductor. He had the orchestra play a beautiful work by Mendelsohn and showed how his way of conducting affected the quality of the performance. When I asked him the question what would happen if one of the musicians should not agree with his musical vision and if he would be open to discuss different views with that musician, the answer was a little disappointing. He argued that the time for a rehearsal is too precious and expensive so that he did not want to loose time on that. Musicians had to fit in or stay out.
I believe many organisations are run like a classical orchestra, centered on the conductor. If we would take more of Jazz orchestra’s characteristics we might unleash much more energy and come to an even higher achievement.
But what about the audience? The audience of a classical orchestra is usually satisfied, unless the performance was absolutely mediocre. The music is accessible, it is of a high sophistication, they might have played a work that you are familiar with and the performance might resemble the performance by another orchestrat on a CD you have. Usually there are no surprises and you can enjoy a highly aesthetic experience. With a Jazz performance you can be thrilled but you also have a chance of being disappointed. Why is that ? Because Jazz musicians take risks. They need to be very skillful and in spite of that they might get it wrong. But they look for new ways of playing, for new variations.
Every musician has had performances during which the notes just did not come out right. So like with any kind of music you’d need an audience that can appreciate the challenges of the music, and in Jazz you need to be able to appreciate the improvisations.
So you do play for an audience. And so do leaders. Their audience is their customer base, their employees and other stakeholders (shareholders, government, …). The companies they lead provide goods and services that should appeal to their audience. So good leaders will play the music their audience like, but they will not play for any audience. And they will also select the musicians they need to play the music they want in order to reach the audience they want.
To some, Jazz music is horrible. To others baroque music is boring. And others cannot understand why thousands of people listen to pop or rock music.So if your audience doesn’t like Jazz, do not play it. But if you like to play Jazz, look for a company that has Jazz lovers as an audience. And if you want to unleash people’s potential you might need to think more like a Jazz-leader.The metaphor provided by Barrett is very powerful and inspirational. It’s worth exploring more. In a next blog I’ll discuss the musical leader and his musicians.
Barett, F. (1998). Creativity and Improvisation and Organizations: Implications for organizational Learning. Organization Science, 9, nr 5, pp. 605-622.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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