A failure to follow is a failure to lead

Jun 24, 2010 by

This article about General Stanley McChrystal’s failure to follow is worth a read. It is authored, not surprisingly, by Barbara Kellerman, a strong proponent of following. I briefly covered the topic of following in a recent post: Top talent and decentralized leadership and of course it’s in my book. The summary is: hire the best people and share responsibilities of leadership by giving them the freedom to take initiative. To avoid chaos, however, people must be good followers. Good jazz musicians understand this and practice it routinely on multiple levels.

I am presently reading Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day by Geoff Loftus.  The premise is that General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and we can learn something from his actions. I usually avoid these kinds of books like the plague because they are often trying to cash in on the popularity of someone. Some of the most recent books claim to help you lead or speak like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Steve Jobs. Lead Like Ike is an exception and well worth a read. Loftus understands the importance of learning from history and that’s something that good jazz musicians subscribe to. (I recently riffed on the importance of learning from history in this post.) More importantly, the subject of Loftus’s book is a man who truly delivered under immense pressure.

During World War II, Ike was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, in charge of Operation TorchOperation Husky, and Operation Overlord. He had ultimate responsibility for a huge workforce that eventually numbered over three million people. Yet even in such an important role of leadership he followed the lead of others including, as Loftus describes it, the board of directors of D-Day including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and the chiefs of staff of the American and British armies and navies.  Each of those people also had to follow the lead of others.  Here’s what Loftus writes about the chain of followership from Eisenhower to Roosevelt and the American voters:

He [Franklin Roosevelt] had millions of voters (shareholders) who could and did express themselves in such ways as political demonstrations, labor protests, elections every two years, and editorials. While the voters couldn’t knock him out of office except at four-year intervals, he needed their support every day of the war. He had to be responsive to their wishes, and FDR was a master at knowing what the people wanted. (Well, enough of the people at any give moment.)

The president, balancing what was necessary for the good of the country (the parent organization) with the needs and wants of his shareholders, would make final decisions. And since Eisenhower believed in the principle of civilian leadership of the military, no matter how much Ike disagreed with those decisions, he always respected them because the president, speaking for the people, had the absolute right to make them, even to be wrong about them.

Remember: No one is so senior that he or she does not have to follow the lead of others and no one is so junior that he or she can’t make a difference by taking initiative.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


John Goldsby: collaborating from the bottom up

Jun 14, 2010 by

This is the second in a series of posts introducing people who have endorsed the Jazz Process book. The first post in this series introduced jazz biographer and linguistics professor, Jack Chambers. For this post I have the pleasure of writing about jazz bassist, John Goldsby.

Goldsby was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1980 he moved to New York where he stayed for almost fifteen years, performing and recording with many great musicians as both a sideman and a leader. In 1994, he moved to Cologne, Germany to become the resident bassist in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk Big Band (Cologne Radio Big Band), a position he still holds today. The Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) is the television and radio station in the Nordrhein-Westphalia area of Germany. It is run as a “public” radio station but has a much broader scope than PBS in the United States. In addition to the Big Band, the WDR also employs two full-time symphony orchestras and a choir.

For the reasons that I will outline in this post, I asked John Goldsby to write the foreword to my book. When I first read what he had written, I was genuinely moved and impressed although not surprised. The purpose of any foreword is to make a case for the book. One of the most effective approaches is to riff on the book’s themes. This is, in essence, what a jazz musician does when collaborating in a musical performance. When jazz musicians formulate original statements they draw on ideas that others have put forward or passed on. In some cases they do this deliberately and in others they may not realize or recall their source of inspiration. In his literary performance, Goldsby identified many of the key themes that I offer up in the book and combined them not only with his own ideas but with the ideas of others that he has picked up over the years. For example, in riffing on the theme of trust he recalled something that legendary bassist Ron Carter had explained to him about Carter’s experience playing with Miles Davis. Just as he would in a musical context, Goldsby drew on a collective of ideas and crafted an engaging statement that compels the reader to tune into the sections of the performance that follow. As an author I could not have asked for more.

Goldsby is one of the foremost jazz bassists of our time. He’s certainly a virtuoso of his instrument but there’s far more to this musician than just great bass chops and tasty solos. Whether he’s leading his own innovative projects or supporting and reinforcing the efforts of others, Goldsby’s reputation is that of a consummate collaborator. Karolina Strassmayer, a superb alto saxophonist, has worked with Goldsby in a wide variety of situations, from the WDR Big Band to Goldsby’s quartet to Strassmayer’s quartet and everything in between. She was effusive when describing her experiences working with Goldsby:

John is one of the most supportive musicians I’ve ever played with. He always seems to know what the music needs and knows how to lift the music. He can shine in such a variety of musical contexts without ever sacrificing his individual style. He’s a fantastic bandleader, he knows what he wants to get from his tunes but leaves plenty of freedom for the players to express themselves.

What makes Goldsby such a great collaborator? Listen to him perform and you’ll hear how well he plays a supportive role. His bass lines are always anchoring the ensemble, giving others the freedom to explore uncharted territory. He’s ever mindful of what the soloists and the ensemble are doing, responding to their improvisational forays and on occasion, urging them to greater heights. When he takes his turn out front, he plays delightfully groovy and lyrical solos that increase the value of the band’s offering. More impressively and importantly, he moves effortlessly between leading and following as the music demands. The ability of individuals to transition smoothly between these roles allows a team to exploit decentralized leadership and act with greater agility. I wrote about decentralized leadership in a recent post: Top talent and decentralized leadership.

Goldsby is particularly knowledgeable about the history of jazz and the role of the bass in jazz. His book, The Jazz Bass Book — Technique and Tradition, is the definitive study of jazz bassists. I was at a talk Goldsby gave in Toronto some years ago where he was introduced by Todd Coolman, another world-class jazz bassist. Coolman is himself somewhat of an authority on the jazz bass tradition and he was quick to point out that much of Goldby’s success comes from his knowledge of jazz bass history. In 1993, shortly before moving to Germany, Goldsby released Tale of the Fingers, a quartet album in which he assumed leadership duties. The album pays tribute to many of the great jazz bassists of yesteryear, demonstrating Goldsby’s respect for the jazz bass tradition. Knowing history is important. It gives you the opportunity to repeat past successes and avoid past mistakes. It’s also an essential path in innovation. You can’t be original without knowing what has already been said. This is particularly true in the business world, where innovators use patents to keep others from exploiting their novel inventions. Novelty of a patent is determined by searching for prior art, the body of knowledge relevant to the patent’s claims of originality, including other patents and publicly accessible descriptions or demonstrations of other inventions. If a patent is granted and it turns out that prior art was overlooked, the patent may be invalidated or reduced in scope. In some countries, inventors even have a duty to disclose pertinent prior art with the relevant patent office. Goldsby’s ability to craft a compelling foreword to a book or a compelling solo leverages his knowledge of what others have said and done.

Goldsby’s appreciation for jazz across time is matched by an appreciation for jazz across cultures. Jazz blogger, pianist and fellow Ottawan, Peter Hum, identified Goldsby’s insightful thinking about the global nature of jazz in a blog post written late last year. Why is this so noteworthy? Empathy for the experience and perspective of others is essential to effective collaboration and it is the hallmark of a truly great leader. Empathy also has great value in understanding and conquering competitors. U.S. Army officer, Major Brian L. Steed notes this in his book, Piercing the Fog of War: Recognizing Change on the Battlefield: Lessons from Military History, 216 BC Through Today. Steed writes: “One area of particular importance in contemporary conflict is developing empathy for the opponent.” In noting how the U.S. has conducted international relations he makes this important point:

Seeing the world from a single perspective and making assessments from that perspective have resulted in failure after failure in the U.S. experience. This is especially true when the conflict occurs with an opponent from a culture significantly different from U.S. or European cultures. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq are all examples of areas that have presented and are presenting difficulties.

In making the move from New York to Cologne and the WDR, Goldsby not only crossed cultural divides but gained unique experience as a member of a large ensemble. Nowadays there are only a handful of jazz orchestras active enough that they can afford to retain a complete complement of full-time musicians and each of these bands employs just one bassist. In his position with the WDR Big Band, Goldsby is part of an organization employing hundreds of musicians but he also has the freedom to pursue his own small-group projects. Some of Goldsby’s notable albums featuring him as a leader include Viewpoint, a 2000 release featuring a sextet, Space for the Bass, a 2009 album featuring a quintet, with each musician hailing from a different country (Strassmayer plays on this one), and The Innkeeper’s Gun, an exciting bass-drums-alto-trio excursion released just this year. There are many musicians who shun large ensembles just as there are people who do not wish to work for large companies. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s important to understand that both small and large teams have their upsides and downsides. At least in the purely acoustic realm, no small group can match the huge range of dynamics and timbres that a large ensemble can generate. When I started out in the software industry, I consulted to a number of large companies including my current employer, IBM. Dealing with such bureaucracy, I swore I would never work for a large organization again. Years later, the small company that I worked for was acquired by IBM. I came to realize that there are many things we simply could not have done without the resources of a large corporation.

A strong practitioner, an innovative and inspiring leader who knows when to let others take the lead, an appreciation for the old and the new, an understanding of cultural differences, and the ability to excel in both small and large teams. In business, this kind of experience would make John Goldsby an ideal CEO. I was not surprised when John told me he reads a lot of business books. John is truly one of the best jazz musicians around and his music is engaging and highly approachable. This is no doubt helped by the fact that his skills as collaborator allow him to attract top talent and inspire them to deliver great performances. Check out some of his recordings to hear the results.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


Top talent and decentralized leadership

May 9, 2010 by

In their quest for greater productivity many teams look to tools and technology when the greatest resource they have, or should have, is already within the team. The United States military is the best equipped fighting force in the world with hardware that soldiers in many other countries can only dream about. One would think that if any U.S. military units would have easy access to that hardware, it would be the elite Special Operations Forces (SOF). While the SOF might find it easier to get access to advanced equipment and weaponry, they realize that their most critical success factor is not technology but people. This basic principle is encoded in four rules known as the “SOF Truths.” General David Baratto, the first chief of operations of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in the late 1980s, defined the first of these truths as follows: “Humans are more important than hardware.” As Linda Robinson, author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces noted, the Special Operations Forces “view the individual soldier and his brain as the key factor in the fight.” General Wayne Downing wrote in the foreword to Special Operations Forces: Roles and Mission in the Aftermath of the Cold War:

“[T]he most important component of success in all our missions is the people we commit to them. We are continually seeking new and innovative ways to select the right people, to train them thoroughly, and to develop them professionally throughout their career. We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.”

While their missions might not be critical to the security of a nation, successful musical leaders also understand the importance of employing top talent. They understand that a group comprised of regularly rehearsing average musicians will never match the capabilities of a team of great musicians even if those musicians are working together for the first time. Jazz leaders know this especially because improvisation, the ability to deal with the unknown and to adapt, plays such a large part in their music. General Downing wrote, “The challenge to Special Operations Forces is to prepare for an uncertain future while operating in an ever-changing present.” Jazz leaders know that experienced and skilled jazz musicians can adapt to almost any situation and deliver a dynamic performance packed with spontaneity, creativity and energy, even if they have never before performed as a collective. Established but fundamentally weak groups performing packaged material might be able to dazzle with a handful of well-rehearsed tunes, but give them something new or unexpected and their weaknesses will be revealed.

The idea of hiring the best people is embodied in Employ Top Talent, one of the most important rules of the Jazz Process. Strong practitioners not only do great work, they allow teams and organizations to apply Lead on Demand, a principle that enables agile teams and ultimately agile organizations.

Even before the SOF Truths were defined, fighter pilot, aircraft designer and military strategist, Colonel John Boyd, proclaimed “People, ideas, hardware – in that order.” One of Boyd’s influences was his study of Blitzkrieg. There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Blitzkrieg concept and its use by German forces during World War II. Many have propagated and continue to propagate the false notion that Blitzkrieg was primarily a strategy of repeated “shock and awe” tactics that relied on overwhelming force directed through military hardware such as the armored divisions of the German Panzerwaffe. Newsreels portrayed the German army as a mechanized juggernaut, when in fact, the German army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses when it attacked the Russians in 1941. The real advantage of Blitzkrieg, which is German for “lightning war,” was speed and mobility.

At the end of World War I the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict restrictions on German military forces, limiting them in both size and scope. The task of reorganizing the German military within these restrictions fell to Hans von Seeckt. A General who had served in numerous high-level positions in the German army during World War I, Seeckt realized that agility was the key to success. By giving unit commanders more autonomy, German forces were able to improve agility. Instead of waiting for explicit orders, they were made aware of the strategic intents of their superiors and expected to use their own creativity and initiative and make their own decisions to help implement the strategy. In this way German forces were able to make decisions and act more quickly than their opponents. The actions of individual units were less predictable and they were able to adapt more quickly in response to the specific threats or conditions they encountered.

Decentralized leadership is leveraged widely in jazz circles. It is quite common for jazz musicians to work variously as leaders or as sidemen and they alternate between these roles frequently and regularly. Busy musicians who are both in-demand sidemen and leaders of their own projects may find themselves fulfilling both roles in the course of a week or even a day. Jazz leadership changes not just between gigs but also during the performance of a single piece of music. While the leader of the gig might choose the tune and count it off, at various times during the performance, different musicians will take on leadership roles and others will follow as necessary. This happens most obviously when jazz musicians take turns performing as soloists and then provide accompaniment for other musician’s solos. However, the reassignment of leadership occurs even more frequently and less obviously than that. There are times when even for just an instant, a musician who is currently playing as accompanist may take on a leadership role to direct a specific change in the music. A musician may initiate a change even without knowing precisely where it will lead, trusting that the other musicians will lead on demand in order to develop the new direction. Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they wish to create interesting, innovative music.

If you want an agile and highly capable organization, begin by hiring top talent, communicating an intent and vision and trusting your people to carry out the necessary work in their own way.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


Page 1 of 11