All About That Bass: The Essence of Leadership

Unless you’re a serious jazz head, you probably haven’t heard of bassist Gary Peacock. But Peacock’s pedigree is impressive: he’s played with such jazz legends as Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and a host of others. I recently came across an article on the NPR website titled “Bassist Gary Peacock Is At The Soloist’s Service.” Naturally, I was intrigued.

For me, the most eye-opening part of the article was the last paragraph:

“My whole orientation [as a bass player] was more of service, more of like wanting to contribute to the welfare of whoever’s playing the solo…In other words, what can I play so that this person just plays the best he’s ever played?”

That last sentence is crucial to understanding the jazz mindset: What can I play so that this person just plays the best he’s ever played? Empathic musicians who think in those terms are one of the rewards of listening to and playing jazz. You can hear that high level of support (sometimes subtle but always present) baked right into the music – and the results are often stunning.

For example, listen to the late, great bassist Charlie Haden accompany guitar whiz Pat Metheny on the beautiful “Our Spanish Love Song.” Note how Haden provides movement and propulsion to the music without ever stepping on Metheny’s toes. Haden never tries to hog the spotlight; rather, through careful variations of rhythm, tone, and timing, he provides exactly what the guitar virtuoso needs for his gorgeous solo to take flight.

Now look at how, with just a few small tweaks, Peacock’s sentiment beautifully captures what I believe is the essence of leadership: “How can I lead so that this person just performs the best he or she has ever performed?” Since the start of my career, I’ve maintained that the fundamental role of leadership is to provide the necessary support, encouragement, resources, and environment for people to do their best work. That’s why I encourage leaders to take a page from Peacock’s playbook and ask themselves that critical question every day: How can I lead so that this team member just performs the best he or she has ever performed? The best leaders I know ask themselves that question continually. They don’t even think about it; it’s just a fundamental part of their approach to leading others.

How can you lead so that your people perform the best they have ever performed?