What biz leaders can learn from jazz

September 10, 2012, 2:59 PM UTC

Miles Davis at the Apollo Theater

FORTUNE – “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” — that old adage pretty much sums up conventional wisdom about the corporate pyramid. At the top are the chief executives who give us direction. Next come the followers, who fall in line behind (unless they want to be part of the problem). At the base is everyone else — the ones who muddle around and obstruct the way. Little wonder that boards, investors, and other stakeholders become so fixated on identifying CEOs who can fill the role of fearless leader, however huge the raid he or she might entail on the corporate coffers.

Once, most CEOs rose through the ranks to take control of a company they knew intimately. Now, CEOs are just as likely to be chosen from outside, rather than promoted from within. If the company has a big enough global footprint, the CEO is also likely to achieve something like rock-star status. In 1980, exactly one CEO graced the cover of BusinessWeek. By 2000, 19 of the magazine’s 52 covers featured CEOs.

Why the difference? In his wonderful book Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs, Rakesh Khurana argues that we have become more focused on the individual CEO as the creator of corporate wealth. It’s the leader, not the business, that drives stock prices, or so the media would often have us believe. Indeed, when it was announced in the summer of 2011 that Steve Jobs would be taking a second medical leave from his post at Apple (AAPL), newspapers and cable stations led their reporting with speculation on how far Apple’s share price would fall on the news. (Answer: About $7 on day one, only to recover in fairly short order. But news of the recovery was miniscule compared to predictions of share-price Armageddon.)

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Publishing houses help reinforce the media-driven cult of the business leader. In the aftermath of wars, memoirs by victorious generals flood the bookshelves. In times of prosperity, CEOs like Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch become best-selling philosopher-kings. Meg Whitman’s tenure as CEO of eBay (EBAY) yielded both a top-selling memoir and a run for the U.S. Senate. In these lean times, many see Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRKA) Warren Buffett as a rare voice of reason amid our hopelessly mired politics.

Scholars and analysts also help perpetuate this view of leaders as individual heroes, the animating force behind big causes, epic moves, earthshaking shifts, and tremors. Jim Collins’s Good to Great deified the charismatic boss, while limning the underlying essence of a person or type that makes a great leader. Business schools further enshrine the cult of the leader by devoting entire institutes to the subject of leadership, and graduate business students, quite understandably, fall in line as well. After all, if you’re not a leader, you’re a follower, or worse. Who gets to the C-suite that way?

I brought up this issue a few years ago when I was teaching a class in the negotiation program to 75 MBAs at Harvard Business School. Here’s what I said: “I was looking through the course catalogue today, and I noticed how many elective courses are offered on leadership at HBS. It’s really remarkable, and I know these courses are popular. In fact there’s a waiting list to get in them. I’ve been thinking about offering a course on followership. I’m curious. How many here would be interested in taking a course on followership next semester?” Not a single person raised his or her hand. There were laughs and chuckles throughout he class. The message was clear. No one wants to be a follower.

Jazz teaches a different aesthetic. Jazz shows us that followership can be not just satisfactory work but a noble calling. And it all begins with the ear.

Generous listening

Jazz thrives on improvisation; there’s no clear road map that tells people how to act in order to coordinate with one another. The only route available to them, in fact, is listening. Jazz musicians have to heed one another closely; they need to be attentive not only to what each member is doing and saying but also to what no one is doing or saying. When someone asked Miles Davis how he improvises, he said that he listens to what everyone is playing and then plays what is missing.

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So open, appreciative, and generous was Davis’s ear that he could hear strengths even when weaknesses were shining through. When Davis first heard John Coltrane play, he might well have picked up on what so many others noticed: Trane’s occasional awkwardness or the squeaks that would intermittently disrupt his lines. But that’s not what caught Davis’s attention. He heard Trane’s creative impulse — his willingness to take risks, his unique voice, and unpredictable phrases. Davis heard what could be, not merely what was: a huge difference.

This is generous listening at its best, an unselfish openness to what the other is offering and a willingness to help others be as brilliant as possible. Being generous is not the same as simply being uncritical. In jazz as in any other endeavor, people get stuck in phrases and modes. Not everyone has to suffer until he or she finds a way through. But generous listening does mean being acutely aware of where the other is heading — of someone else’s sense of future possibilities. There’s a selfless suspension of ego in these moments when you make the other primary and seek to further his or her contributions. In essence, generous listening means you are willing to become the thinking partner of your immediate colleagues, helping them navigate through the terrain of obstacles they face while fashioning a way forward.

In jazz, generous listening expresses itself first and foremost in what is known as “comping”: the rhythms, chords, and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation. (“Comp” is short for “accompany.”) Not surprisingly, comping goes to the very soul of the art form.

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Is it possible for members of an organization to do the same — to accompany others’ thinking so that ideas achieve fruition, just as jazz players comp each other’s playing to bring the music to its fullest expression? Yes, of course, but doing so requires letting go of automatic patterns. Organizational members have to make room for one another, suspend efforts to manipulate and control outcomes, relinquish investment in predetermined plans, and often surrender familiar protocols. To agree to comp, in other words, is to accept an invitation of openness and wonderment to what unfolds.

This adapted excerpt of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett has been reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2012 Frank J. Barrett. All rights reserved.