Jammin at the Pickin Places – Lessons in Leadership

Readers know that I often search for important lessons on leadership in some pretty unlikely places. It is as if I cannot help myself. As a leadership consultant, I am more than susceptible to the “law of the instrument,” which holds that ‘to a person whose only tool is a hammer it is tempting to see everything else as a nail.’ Because of my deep interest in the subject, I seem to find leadership lessons everywhere I look. But even I was taken aback by how much I learned about team building and effective leadership in the hills of North Carolina, during my two days at MerleFest, one of the country’s largest music festivals, featuring what the organizers call “traditional plus” – heavy doses of traditional Appalachian music, plus a variety of other styles.

Importantly, these lessons in leadership did not come from listening to the headliners on the main stage (though they were great), or from observing the management of the festival itself (though it was extremely well run). Instead, what captivated my attention, as both an executive and a professor of leadership, is what I saw during the jam sessions at the “Pickin Places.” In what can only be described as the musical equivalent of the pickup stickball games of my youth, individual performers and regular patrons would assemble at an appointed hour and venue (the Pickin Place). There, folks who had never played together (or even met) previously produced some of the most energized and beautiful music of the entire event, without a rehearsal or even a page of sheet music.

These jam sessions were living laboratories, teaching far more about effective leadership than most formal classrooms or training seminars. I do not know very much about music and I suspect that a trained eye might reframe my observations into language a musicologist would approve of, but for now, here’s what I learned.

  • The essence of the effective jam is predicated upon a commitment to working together, with no desire to outdo the others in the group. Think about what could happen if we applied this same standard to our teams at work and elsewhere.
  • The only way good jams work is when every member of the group is keenly tuned in to the others’ instincts and inclinations. This happens when each member pays careful attention not only to what is being said but to the body language and nonverbal cues of the others, as well. Everyone talks about the value of communication in leadership, but it is the ability to listen on a deeper level, to hone into those things that go well beyond that which is spoken, that makes for great jammin and great team building.
  • What allows the group to make such beautiful music is the fact that each individual brings a level of personal proficiency and excellence to the experience. No single member, however talented, can carry the group as a whole. Nothing matters more in the team building process than the ability to both trust your colleagues and to be trusted by them. Trust, as Steven Covey taught, is the product of competence and character, whether in a jam session or in the boardroom.
  • Great jammin does not require every artist to be the same or to play the same. On the contrary, great jammin demands a willingness to accept that each member brings different skills to the group. Putting the right people around the table is essential to building great teams. As Peter Drucker predicted, in the 21st century, the leader is less the expert and more the convener of experts.
  • On those occasions when a member falters during a jam, the others do not celebrate the downfall of a potential competitor. They rally to protect the enduring quality of the jam itself and endeavor to protect each other.
  • Leadership of the jam is a renewable energy source – at various points during the session, each musician is both leader and follower. Great leaders recognize that leadership can come from any place within the organization and that on any given project today’s follower is tomorrow’s leader.
  • Thus, leadership in the jam session is about behavior in the moment, not the permanency of position. It’s pretty hard to decipher hierarchy when everyone is sitting in a circle.
  • In a jam, leadership is about talent and supporting the others. It is not about age, seniority, or any other extrinsically imposed metric. Jammers go out of their way to bring in younger members and to give them the chance to shine. Investing in the future of the art, growing the leadership of others, is an essential component of the jam. Great leaders aren’t threatened by their younger colleagues. They embrace them, mentor them, and celebrate their advancement.

To be clear, I believe that great music comes from a variety of sources. Stand-alone performers can inspire and move audiences, to be sure. But theirs, it seems to me, is a zero-sum game. They succeed at someone else’s expense. Solo artists sell more tickets, while someone else sells less, or they succeed in beating out the competition. They win, while others continue to clamor for top billing.

Watching a jam work its magic, however, is a qualitatively “other” experience. Musicians who strive to make great music by jammin put the group above their individual selves. They know that their success depends upon the success of others. They seek not to outperform or to exclude; rather, they treasure the diversity that, in the end, makes them whole.

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