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Creating Your Leadership Footprint through the Practice of LESS is MORE

June 16, 2013

Miles Davis 2 We’ve all heard the adage: You can’t over-communicate when you’re in a leadership position.

The faulty assumption is that people–employees–need to hear the same message over and over again if it’s to become ingrained in their daily behaviors and habits at work. This adage, however, has remained disconnected from the more important, yet connected, aspect of modeling the desired behaviors that management wishes to see embedded within the organization.

I’m all for communicating clearly and regularly, whether it’s at work, at home or in community volunteer work. However, I also respect people’s time and acknowledge that all of us are being inundated at a growing rate with information via all its media forms. I used to be an adherent of the communicate, communicate, communicate philosophy when I worked for three decades in large organizations.

However, I began to reflect on the effectiveness of this practice some years ago. And it was more recently when, as a student of Jazz piano, that I began to understand the parallels between communication and this form of music. Regardless of whether you like Jazz or not (I detest abstract Jazz) take a moment to think of music that has become cluttered with too many notes, too many repetitious bars and too many musicians, each vying for your attention. After a while you tune it out, switch the station or tracks, or simply leave the venue if you’re watching a live performance.

Miles Davis

This is analogous to communication in the workplace: repeated messages (without the modeling behavior) that make employees feel like children, conflicting messages from different sources, and a sense of organizational “noise.” The result is employees feeling confused, disconnected and skeptical of management’s intentions.

Meet Miles David, the master of less is more.

In his best-seller autobiography Miles: The Autobiography Davis opens the kimono, revealing his weaknesses, fears, gifts and warts. Towards the end of the book he makes an illuminating admission which I’ll attempt to translate to a leadership context. Davis states:

“The worst musicians don’t hear the music today, so they can’t play it. Only when I started hearing the upper register did I play there. I could only play in the middle to lower registers before because that’s all I heard.”

What does that mean in a contemporary leadership context?

I interpret it this way: traditionally, managers (aka leaders) held positions of appointed authority. They could tell people–employees –what to do and command compliance. They could hire and fire at will. And they could punish when they saw fit.

Miles Davis 5 Let’s change that scene and tempo and switch to Miles Davis’ self-enlightenment.

If we wish to speak of leadership then we need to move from a compliance mindset to one of enrolment, where people follow an individual towards a shared vision–such as with the leader of a Jazz ensemble. In other words, whether in an organization, community or Jazz group, it’s all about earned followership.

A vital element of leading in a work context or in a Jazz setting is listening and hearing to what is both being said and not said. This is an important lesson that my Jazz piano teacher, Canada’s legendary Brian Browne, has taught me.

Listening to Miles Davis’ music reveals why playing less is actually more fulfilling, clarifying what messages he wants us to hear. There’s no clutter, haziness or misdirected notes. The same applies to how organizational leadership communicates.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, take a moment to listen to Davis playing on Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959. Backed by Bill Evans on piano, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly on sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Paul Chambers on bass, Kind of Blue is a brilliant example of clarity in communication.


As you go forward in your personal leadership journey, reflect periodically on how you’re communicating to your co-workers and, if applicable, those you lead.

Are you listening to the upper register?

Can you hear what is not being said?

Miles Davis 3 Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.
Miles Davis








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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Erin permalink
    June 28, 2013 1:31 am

    I completely understand your point of view and perspective. (Do you hear the big “however” coming?) ….However, I feel that your POV only can be successful in an organization that already knows the chorus. Your parallels to jazz are great…but…Think of a pop song (sorry…gen x here…). What do you remember first? The chorus!!!!!! The part of the song that is communicated over an over and over (and then revisited in a different wording during the refrain).

    In my position, working under several different leaders (and leadership types) the ones who ha the biggest impact on the entire organization are those who communicated ‘every 4 measures’. Those who already knew what to do and were part of the 20% on board would make sure the 80% of wishy washys knew what to do. (Yes there is always going to be 10-20% we cannot help….they don’t count but I included them in the 80%.) Plus…if every 4 measures we are getting the “be all end all mission and vision” of the organization hen nobody can say they ‘didn’t know’.

    Just my thought. Embrace that chorus.

    • June 28, 2013 2:41 am

      Thanks for taking the time, Erin, to share an important perspective on communication: the need to repeat messages and in keeping with an organization’s culture. With Jazz, there’s the core of the piece, and despite improvising (or what may be referred to as “blowing”) we’re all familiar with hearing the main melody several times.

  2. June 17, 2013 2:07 am

    Thanks, Geoff, for stopping by and for sharing a relevant pithy thought.

  3. June 16, 2013 8:07 pm

    Excellent points, Jim.

    “Purposes are decided from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.”
    Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

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