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.


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