The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

A Fresh Perspective on Leadership: Music as Inspiration for Self-organising Teams

Introducing music in the business world
Everything we need to know about leadership, management styles and emotional intelligence has probably already been written and analysed. So, what can this article bring to the conversation? New insight for business leaders into the simple approaches that the world’s leading musicians playing in jazz and other similar styles apply every day to spark innovation and push creative boundaries. Modern music has been shaped in this way for more than six decades. For those who see its value, now may be the time for this wisdom to jump over to the business world.

Has the role of the ‘hero leader’ run its course?

This article reflects on new thinking that business leaders can embrace to inspire and motivate teams, informed by the way musical groups interact and self-organise to produce beautiful music.

By appreciating how musical dialogue happens in a jazz or small ensemble setting, leaders can gain new insights into how they can motivate business teams to become highly effective.

Many of the qualities that jazz players need to deliver a successful result from playing together are the essence of what business teams need to be effective. How these musicians interact offers useful clues to business leaders about how to create the conditions that will motivate high-performance teams. They include: harnessing the power of a diverse team of experts, guiding rather than prescribing, facilitating a culture of mutual support and reciprocity, encouraging dynamic rhythmic interaction, and championing the values of empathy and listening.

As they perform their music, most jazz groups are self-organised, guided by a light-touch leadership style. Business professionals can learn much from how this type of music is shaped. The essence of this thinking brings us back to the simple point – often lost in management frameworks and leadership styles –  that it’s really all about the people and how to inspire and motivate high-potential groups. It’s not about checklists and processes.

What professional teams want

Two previous articles by the Future Work Forum, for EFMD Global Focus interviewed a range of mid-career professionals – future leaders working worldwide. These conversations centred on what they most value in their work situations – what works well (or not), how they see their company’s leadership style and what they would do differently or better if they were leading.

The future leaders tell us that they want to be better appreciated by their managers, have more responsibility and autonomy to decide and shape their working lives, and want a work-life balance that gives flexibility to manage their time and determine their work location.

The views hint that most of these professionals face a directive leadership style. They also stressed that if the current work environment is not to their liking, they will seek a more suitable environment where they can thrive.

For directive leaders, this message is clear: you’re free to lead by imposing your will, and you may get good results. But do it at your own risk. Ignoring the human factor will likely result in your best team members deserting the ship. Organisations and teams with a collaborative style will more easily attract the best talent.

Leadership styles that will empower tomorrow’s leaders

Tim Glaid, Professor of Business at Salem University offers insight connecting jazz layering and effective leadership.

“Like great musicians, good leaders are willing to take a humble posture and put their team’s accomplishments above their own. A leader’s success is not independent of their team’s success. The best musicians are those who support their fellow musicians. Leading in music is about helping others perform their best work   not just expecting them to. Those who say ‘it’s lonely at the top’ don’t recognise the support of those following them.”1

Can jazz interactions inspire a new leadership style?

Music is played in many different settings. Some groups have a strong leader, where the players are called on to execute in a tight format. The symphony orchestra or musical theatre require highly skilled players who follow the conductor’s lead. Here, the composer’s vision is transmitted via the conductor to specialists, who set the tempo and the flow of the piece as it progresses. This leadership style is often personality-led. No one moves until the conductor gives the signal. The result can be stunning; but are the players interacting and learning together?

The symphony orchestra approach is in stark contrast to the self-organising dynamic of a jazz trio, quartet, or larger ensemble whose playing is inspired by group interaction and improvisation. Here the leadership style is implied, with responsibility for action distributed across the specialists. In jazz thinking, the leader is the guide, sharing a vision for the piece and charting the general direction, then leaving each player the space to contribute their expertise and express themselves, as the group evolves together, supporting each other as the music unfolds.

Leading the creation of a new jazz art form

The Miles Davis album Kind of Blue was recorded in 1959. This, the bestselling jazz album of all time, changed the sound and concept of this art form. To lead his creative process, Miles brought handwritten notes to the recording session, with no detailed sheet music for the musicians. As he tells it: “I didn’t write out the music for Kind of Blue but brought in sketches … because I wanted a lot of spontaneity in the playing. I knew that if you have great musicians, they will deal with the situation and play beyond what is there and above where they think they can.”

Commenting on Miles’ approach, trumpet player Eddie Henderson explained:  “He had the awareness and foresight to look at people’s music chemistry and select the chemistry of different musicians. He knew even before they played together that it would work.”

Considering the lessons from music playing and improvisation, it seems clear that if I am to be an aspiring and effective leader, I need to find a way to link my experience and expertise to others in a way that inspires and empowers them. And above all, be opened to listen and respond.

Appreciating the complementarities between musical interactions and the leadership qualities that will motivate a professional team brings useful insights into how to create a more harmonious, productive, and engaging work environment.


Each member’s contribution is critical to the team’s success.

Harmony is about reaching agreement, having harmonious relations, and progressing with an orderly, or pleasing arrangement of musical parts.

In a professional team, each member’s contribution is vital to the success of the collective performance. In this setting, harmony is the silent conductor that orchestrates the team toward a common goal. As they play together, musicians continually listen and adapt to each other’s actions. In this adaptive interplay, leadership flows among members, responding dynamically to the rhythm of the group’s interactions.


Rhythm and tempo are what make things move, but silence is just as important.

Rhythm is the pattern of sound, silence, and emphasis in a piece of music. It also says for how long a note is played and with what intensity – creating a flow and accents as the music unfolds. Rhythm and tempo are what make things move. But silence is just as important as sound – it makes the music exciting and dynamic.

Embedding rhythm in a professional team requires finesse and an understanding of pace and timing in interactions, to ensure that communication flows smoothly. Setting a rhythm that balances rapid progress with thoughtful pauses helps teams synchronise. Creating this dynamic means that teams can navigate disagreements to progress together, toward shared outcomes.


How are you feeling? How does this interaction make us feel?

Well-executed jazz playing touches the audience. Leaders and professional teams can channel their passion and empathy to create a motivating force in the group. Creating the space for an emotional dimension in business interactions amplifies creativity and adaptability and boosts performance.

Attention and precision

Be there, in the moment, confident that you know what you’re doing based on the skills and experience you bring to the group.

In a musical setting attention is about focus and self-awareness – being in the moment together with others. The challenge for business leaders is to lead by example, provide clear direction, offer guidance and feedback to avoid misunderstandings and encourage continuous learning and exchange in a team.


Playing music in a jazz setting is about listening and responding in real time.

Listen more than you speak in group interactions. Remember the good parts and replicate them (but not in a mechanical way!). Empathy in leadership is about understanding and sharing the feelings of others, listening and responding in the moment -promote active listening and create an environment where all feel they belong and each contribution matters.


1 Leadership Lessons Through a Musical Lens; Blog post by Tim Glaid, Salem University –

A fresh perspective on leadership: music as inspiration for self-organising teams

Michael is a science and policy communication professional. For the past 15 years, he has led and managed teams for international research centers and consortia in the areas of agriculture, health research systems, forestry, environmental management and rural development.

Sabine is a dynamic professional with advanced knowledge in Coaching and Consulting with 25 years of proven expertise in various fields in coaching in business, university, sports and clinical context. Her way is energetic, inspiring, goal and solution oriented.

Samreen McGregor is an executive coach and strategic advisor renowned for her innovative approach that spans across business performance, profound behavioural change, and embodied consciousness. Samreen works with c-suite leaders and executive teams, given the disproportionate impact they have on the communities they lead.

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