Miles Davis and Leadership

Whether you love jazz or not, you’re likely familiar with Miles Davis’ classic 1959 album “Kind of Blue.”  One of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, “Kind of Blue” represented not only a radical change of sound for Davis but for jazz music as a whole.  Although the album’s timeless tunes and incandescent performances could provide a lifetime of study for students of jazz, it also – surprisingly – has much to teach us about leadership, collaboration, and creativity.  In an article titled “Kind of Blue: Pushing Boundaries with Miles Davis,” author Martha Lagace interviews (via email) Harvard Business School professor Robert D. Austin and consultant Carl Stormer about the profound lessons to be gleaned from this legendary recording.  Here are the highlights:

1. Be willing to abandon the past in the pursuit of innovation.  “Miles had reached the pinnacle by playing and innovating in the bebop tradition,” says Austin.  “But in Kind of Blue he walked away from all that, in the direction of a very different sort of music called modal jazz.”  The album “is an example of pushing boundaries and taking experimentation right up to the edge of failure in the pursuit of something new.”

2. Simplify.  According to Stormer, “Miles was…pushing the boundaries of bebop toward greater complexity in the music…But [with Kind of Blue] he actually turned around 180 degrees and went the opposite direction, toward simplicity – simplicity that empowered and freed his players to improvise and create, rather than pushing them to the limits of their technical mastery…There are probably business benefits in relying on radical simplicity to free and empower employees in a similar way.”

3. Get the best people on your team and have them listen. “I also think [Davis] wanted to find ways to more fully realize the incredible potential of his team,” suggests Stormer.  “[He got] the best players in the world and [forced] them to listen to the music by not telling them what to do.”  Austin agrees: “Simplify the task down to its essential elements, put your smartest people on it, and force them to listen – to each other, to the interaction between the company and its customers, and to the market.”

4. Avoid overly detailed plans and habitual ways of thinking. “Miles Davis was known to have a preference for first takes,” writes Stormer.  “Working without a script or with a very loose script forces you to listen intensely to ensure that your own contribution is contextually relevant to what everybody else is doing in the moment.”  Austin continues: “One of the big problems in innovation is how to free yourself from preconceptions, to get outside your expectations and normal tendencies, so that you can create something really new…Get really good people and put them in situations they can handle, but also circumstances that challenge them and their preconceptions.

5. Learn from mistakes.  “On the song ‘Freddie Freeloader’ Davis comes in one bar early at one point,” asserts Stormer.  “The band adjusts to this unexpected entry by the leader in such a seamless way that very few people notice the subtle glitch.  This is the power of collective improvisation: Everybody listens to everybody else and adjusts to what they are doing.”