What do sports coaches such as Bill Belichick and Bobby Knight and music directors and conductors such as Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis have in common? The answer is that to achieve their level of success, they have all had to be effective leaders.

Say what? Sports such as football and music such as jazz can be equally effective as platforms to teach effective leadership skills.


In fact, given that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, it seems appropriate to take this opportunity to make the case that music, in general, and jazz specifically, may, in fact, be a more effective leadership development tool than sports such as football for the 21st Century.

A common cultural belief is that nothing instills in participants character traits such as discipline, personal responsibility, collaboration, and leadership skills than participation in team sports. The leadership skills taught and developed on the playing field, it is said, carry over to effective leadership off the field. The notion that team sports build leaders is a long-held and very powerful justification for our continued heavy investment in them as an effective educational and leadership development tool.

But the fact is, music also provides opportunities to exhibit and develop leadership skills. There is no difference between a team and a band in terms of the requirements for reaching the predetermined goals of winning (sports) and achieving a particular sound (music). In short, any team or band setting offers tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.

But the elements and characteristics required of good leaders are not static. Effective leadership requires recognition that worker attitudes, work environments, and productivity expectations can change. That being the case, desirable and effective leadership skills, and styles must also evolve. There was a time, for example, when the iron-fisted “my way or the highway” style of leadership was considered very effective. But times change, people change, and entire industries can change. Employees now demand more respect and collaboration. As a result, effective leaders can no longer simply demand performance; they must nurture a more collaborative work environment if they wish to maximize worker and company productivity. Employees today don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine. They want to be respected and have a part in the decision-making process. Smart and effective leaders understand that. Simply put, employees who are more invested in the decision-making process are more productive.

Frank Barrett, in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, elaborates:

We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change. Command-and-control models of leadership stress routines and rules. They demand rigorous and clear organizational structures reinforced by rules, plans, budgets PERT charts, schedules, clearly defined roles, and the use of coercion or intimidation to get worker compliance. These might have worked well in the first part of the twentieth century when organizations were designed like machines, tasks were broken down into small parts that could easily be replicated, and people could be replaced as easily as machine parts. But as we enter the knowledge-intensive demands of the twenty-first century, we need to rotate our images and increase our leadership repertoire beyond these hierarchical models so that we can more fully appreciate the power of relationships.

This begs the question. Given this shift in desired leadership style to a more collaborative, participatory focus, how does the traditional leadership style of the sports culture hold up versus the jazz-influenced leadership style outlined by Barrett? He continues:

   “Leaders don’t have the luxury of anticipating or predicting every situation, training and rehearsing for it and getting learning out of the way before executing. Rather, leaders must master the art of learning while doing and spread this mastery throughout their systems. That’s why jazz bands are such provocative models for us to consider as we create teams and organizations in the twenty-first century. 

“How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment, learn and innovate – in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age. An improvisation model of organizing created a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning toward a narrowness of control.” (Barrett, 2012, pp.xiv,xv.)   

In short, both sports and music can provide a platform for teaching leadership skills. But is it possible that while sports’ top-down style of teaching was better suited to the Industrial Age, the jazz-influenced collaborative model of leadership style may be more effective in the creative economy and workplace of the 21st Century?

The point is not to dismiss sports’ potential as a vehicle to teach leadership skills. Rather it is simply to recognize that when we consider how to invest educational and community resources for purposes of developing leadership skills in our populace, team sports do not have the market cornered on effectiveness. Investment in music education can be as effective, and in some cases, even more effective, than sports as a vehicle to instill those characteristics.

That’s something to consider not only during Jazz Appreciation Month but year-round.

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