Reviewed by Kaki Read
In “Leadership Jazz,” author Max DePree cunningly compares one’s leadership position to the complex task of conducting a jazz band:
Jazz band leaders must choose the music, find the right musicians, and perform—in public. But the effect of the performance depends on so many things—the environment, the volunteers playing in the band, the need for everybody to perform as individuals and as a group, the absolute dependence of the leader on the members of the band […]. (DePree, 8-9)
The conductor’s role is complex and important, as is the leader’s in the eyes of both his followers and his community. DePree continues his insightful assessment throughout the text, highlighting four particular correlations that stand out in the reader’s mind—their similar need to implement servant leadership, to embrace diversity, to effectively communicate, and to responsibly delegate.
The first similarity is both the conductor’s and leader’s commitment to servant leadership, a multi-faceted activity that will not only improve the community’s opinion of its leader, but strengthen the leader’s opinion of him or herself. According to DePree, the leader must practice integrity, open doors for amateurs who need such access to learn and develop, and advocate individual creativity that, sometimes, unexpectedly produces the organization’s most valuable surprises. Like a jazz conductor offering a solo to the beginning saxophone player, the leader must relinquish some of his own talents in order to showcase those standing upon the lower steps of the totem pole.
Second among the jazz band and leadership similarities is the need for both entities to embrace diversity. According to Dictionary.com, jazz music combines, “various increasingly complex styles, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism.” What characterizes this musical type is its unique combination of traditional, soulful, and modern sounds, creating a distinctive juxtaposition that somehow creates perfect harmony and has since made jazz a timeless genre. Leaders create similar harmony when hiring individuals of all personalities, demographics, ages, and academic specialties. DePree offered the example of a business executive faced with the opportunity to hire Leonardo da Vinci. Though balancing account books and analyzing stock exchanges may not have topped Da Vinci’s list of qualifications, what manager would pass the opportunity to one of history’s most brilliant creative thinkers? Embracing diversity, the path to a group’s true potential, offers organizations access to a world of exceptional possibilities.
“One of the most sacred relationships is that between leaders and followers,” emphasizes DePree, which leads us to the third connection between commendable leadership skills and the successful jazz ensemble—successful leader/follower communication (126). Without an accomplished conductor swaying his hands in the proper motion, musicians would be lost. Similarly, a leader must clearly provide goals, objectives, rules, etc. in order for his employees to work efficiently. On the opposing end, an employee and member of the music group must inform his or her leader when communication is not presented effectively, or when hardships of which the leader may not be aware appear within the general staff. Management doors must remain open in order for both groups to progress toward both personal development and a promising future for the entire organization.
Finally, DePree insists that both the conductor and leader must delegate. Just as a conductor cannot satisfy an awaiting audience as he solely attempts to play one jazz instrument after another, a corporate executive cannot possibly manage a successful company without a few helping hands. As organizations become increasingly complex, delegation becomes more and more imperative. Sometimes, “hard-driving business managers are often suspicious to abandon themselves to the consequences of real delegation […],” DePree sighs, but “jazz-band leaders know it for what it is” (153). Egotism cannot impede upon one’s responsibility to outsource tasks; not only will delegation provide for more effective time management and more attention to detail, but it offers amateur employees requisite real-world experience. The author concludes his comparison describing how a leader must effectively delegate—first providing the task’s who, what, when, where, and why (leaving the how up to the recipient), second expressing high expectation for the resulting product, and third, and perhaps most importantly, exuding unwavering confidence in trust in the task recipient’s abilities.
Does DePree offer an Effective Approach to Leadership?
DePree discusses several theories that coincide with those we have discussed in class, making me consider his leadership approach effective. Edward Deming’s “Fourteen Points” reappear throughout DePree’s writing; for example, Point Six, “Institute Training,” reiterates DePree’s belief that a leader should allow avenues for both managers and amateurs to develop, whether that involve “open-door policies,” delegating responsibility so that everyone gains real-world experience, or offering training programs that will improve both the quality of work and employee self-esteem. Both DePree and Deming insist that the learning process does not slow as one climbs the organization’s hierarchy.
Deming’s Eighth Point, to “Drive Out Fear,” coincides with another quality DePree puts on his final list of requisite leadership characteristics—“comfort with ambiguity” (224). DePree stresses that all organizations exhibit a degree of chaos, and that the leader is responsible for honing that chaos (224). A successful leader channels such chaos into a steady pulse that breathes life into the work environment.
Diversity, another theme DePree considers requisite for successful leadership, was similarly suggested by our recent guest speaker, who deems that the inclusive practice breeds progress. Statistics reiterate this theory; for example, fortune 500 companies with women serving on the executive board have proven more successful. As our speaker suggested, diversity is a proven beneficiary and should not be a superficial goal, but should be a priority to “improve the critical mass where all viewpoints are welcome.” Because DePree emphasized these theories in conjunction with other scholars, I consider his leadership approach valid.
Would I Recommend this Text to Other PR Students?
Although I found his final few paragraphs helpful, as a whole, DePree’s book was unorganized, somewhat typical, and bogged-down with wordy language that made the reading process repetitive. Firstly, the text was not organized properly. I started reading the material expecting (from the title) it to be a thorough comparison between jazz and leadership. I also expected DePree to outline that objective in the introductory chapter, as well as provide a thoughtful definition of the jazz music genre. Rather, his comparison was only briefly addressed and then revisited sporadically throughout the book. I was never sure where DePree’s message was headed next, or if he had a unique objective that made his message different from any other scholar
Each of DePree’s chapters conveyed an important message; however each could have been stated in a more concise manner. DePree’s personal convictions, work stories from Herman Miller, and stories illustrating life experiences were exceptionally interesting, but his lists and other suggestions were repetitious. I would not think his book worth reading again, nor do I think it a vital source for leaders in complex positions; however, I would suggest that those entering a leadership position skim Leadership Jazz for its basic, helpful tips and empowering message.