Some time ago, I was exploring the role of the leader in a jazz performance with Cory Weeds, leader of the Jazzthink Trio. He said something that has continued to intrigue me ever since. "We create the space in which people perform."
Simple, eh? Yes - and no. What I've kept thinking about, and exploring further with other leaders of jazz groups, is what's involved in creating that kind of space.
Space that inspires and sustains passion, virtuosity, and joy is not easy to create and even more difficult to continuously enhance. But it is possible.
It is possible if you pay as much attention to the vibe and value that your voice generates in creating an inviting space for contribution as jazz musicians pay to the vibe and value that their instruments generate in creating an inviting space for performance. It the kind of warm and welcoming energy that I imagine at the centre of the image Colin Righton painted for the Jazzthink logo over a decade ago. It doesn't stand out as powerfully in the digital reproduction as it does in the original painting in our apartment. But there is a passionate and purposeful power at the centre of the painting that draws and holds the musicians together in an integrated performance. That's the kind of space in which great teams emerge.
I've come to the conclusion that there is only one form of conversation that initiates this kind of space - curiosity. The role of the leader is to wonder and inquire about what others think about the melody, what they imagine might be possible, what they'd like to contribute and create, what support they might need, what alternatives occur to them, and what they aspire to achieve. Out of this kind of curiosity emerges common clarity and collegial commitment. People co-create harmony and rhythm around the melody. They stay in sync to the delight of the audience.
Think of the alternatives. If you begin by contending for a single position, complaining about a specific situation, or criticizing a particular circumstance, you create a confined and/or negative space. There is little room for creative contribution. You're really requesting confirmation or compliance. You may very well get it, but it's likely to be pretty superficial.
To build deep collaboration, you invite people to contribute. To invite people to contribute, you begin with curiosity about what they want to offer. To keep people engaged at their best, you continually ask how things might improve. In everything, you're curious.
That's what the best jazz group leaders do. Why not give it a try in your next series of conversations with your team?