Improvisation and Leadership

As I write this, I’m completing my final preparatory activities to lead a program called Essence of Leadership (offered by Contegrity Program Designs) coming up this next weekend. The prep work for this isn’t about reading books on theories of leadership, studying or other academics — it’s really about leading. I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of music.

As some of you who are repeat visitors are likely aware, music is a significant topic here. I think it was inevitable that the work I’m doing in the one area would reach into the work I’m doing in the other (music->development, development->music). Heck, I was counting on it and still am. From what I can tell, improvisation and leadership are fundamentally related. I don’t think that we can realistically separate the two, nor should we be wanting to. In his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stehpen Nachmanovitch writes:

“As an improvising muisican, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a  single breath, of both trasncience and eternity. We know what might happen in the next day or minute, but we cannot know what will happen. To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh.”

Okay, so that’s improvising, what’s the connection with leadership??? Well, let’s toss this around for a bit. We don’t have to dig too deep before we start seeing some connections.

I really like the part where Nachmanovitch talks about surrender. Leaders understand something about surrender as well. In so doing, they open themselves to what can happen. Surrender is important because it takes the “if it’s to be, it’s up to me” out of the equation. While the leader has a role and a part to play, it isn’t all on them personally. There’s something larger to pay attention that is what they’ll steer off of.

Same way in music, isn’t it? When we’re performing, we can’t just go anywhere you want. Well, you can — but it’s not without a high price. You risk leaving everyone else behind. If you do that too often, you’ll find that your pets might become your pimrary audience… and they probably won’t like your sound either! :-)

We play what is fitting with and serves the music. Anything else is really the height of self-indulgence. Still, the ground that this gives us to play from is immense. There are some things that we know (like the song, for example) that set the context. Within this, there’s lots of room for the kind of creativity and mystery that Nachmanovitch refers to.

Unfortunately, I don’ t have to look too far into my musical history to identify where I was more interested in being a musical “manager” than a “leader”. Where I’d work out what I want to play, come up with licks and patterns or trying to carefully choreograph what would come up next. That strategy works great when you’re playing by yourself, but tends to fall flat as soon as “others” enter the equation. Others are such a pain when I’m trying to “get things to go the way I want them to.”

I wanted to have a result that sounded good (to me) so badly, that I was willing to do anything to get there. In the process, I tied my hands behind my back and nailed my feet to the floor. I wasn’t going anywhere. In the end, I wasn’t building a sufficient relationship with other players nor with music to allow for something really free and inspiring to show up.

Today, I find that the more capable I become as a leader, the better my playing and ability to improvise gets. From my perspective, I’m quite clear that this is no accident.

When you improvise, are you leading, managing or doing something entirely different? Does surrender really have anything to do with this? What about listening — does it have a place here?

What do you think?

September 13, 2009 · kengon · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Development, Music

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