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Creating Your Leadership Footprint through the Practice of LESS is MORE

December 19, 2019

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 behaviours and habits at work. This adage, however, has remained disconnected from the more important, yet connected, aspect of modelling the desired behaviours that management wishes to see embedded within the organization.

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

However, some personal reflection was needed on the effectiveness of this practice. And it was a few years ago 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 dislike 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.

This is analogous to communication in the workplace: repeated messages (without the modelling behaviour) 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 Davis, the master of less is more (and enjoy the selection of photos of Davis at different points in his career).

In his best-seller autobiography Miles: The Autobiography Davis opened 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?

Here’s my interpretation: 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 at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

 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 former Jazz piano teacher, Canada’s legendary pianist the late Brian Browne, 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?

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

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