Piano legend Harold Mabern ('Mabes') graced the Vancouver International Jazz Festival last month. It was a CD launch for a recording - As Of Now on Cellar Live - that he did with Cory Weeds, who leads the Jazzthink Trio.
'Mabes' loves to share his jazz lore with his audiences. He believes that great pianists do two things exceptionally well - introducin' and compin'. The first skill has to do with introducing a melody and setting up the others in the group to get into the swing of their performance. The second skill has to do with accompanying and supporting the musicians as they contribute their unique genius to the success of the group. His comments helped me remember how crucial these two skills are to exceptional leadership.
First, and as essential context, we're talking here about leadership more than leaders. Leaders engage in leadership. If they don't, they aren't leaders. Leadership is a collective act, a team event. It involves a group of people gathered together to achieve a purpose. All together, and each individually, contribute their best to achievement of that purpose.
The act of leadership can come from any person in the group, or from some in the group, or from the whole group. Whoever is generating a positive influence that attracts the creative energy of the group to serve the purpose is exercising leadership. In the end, great leadership is an event that involves the influence of all those on the team.
Introducin' is about setting up a basic melody, rhythm, and harmony that will get a focused and innovative conversation started. This is the invitation to play together. Usually, it lays out the basic melody line, establishes an initial rhythm, and (on the piano) suggests some possible harmonies. It's short and to the point, preparing the space for the others to join.
When they do step into that space, the person doing the inviting usually steps back and supports the conversation by accompanying the various soloists and taking his/her own turn at a solo while others comp. All in all, it's a respectful process of 'call and response' that respects the integrity of the melody, but explores a wide variety of ways of interpreting and performing it. In that kind of exploration, true innovation and creativity are found.
Just think of the impact of this kind of inviting introduction to your next meeting with your colleagues at work - warm, welcoming, melodic, genial, inspiring. You can craft the vibe of your voice in conversation to create this value. Just give it a try and see what happens.
Comping' is about accompanying others in a supportive and inspiring way. At times, that compin' takes the form of leadership. At times, it takes the form of followership. Always, it seeks to support and inspire. It's done through the instrument you use. In jazz, it's the piano, the sax, the bass, the drums. In leadership, it's your voice.
The sounds of leadership conversations have their impact through the vibrations they create. Some sounds have a positive vibe, and therefore value, and some a negative one. You choose which one. If you are truly compin', you will choose to generate positive sounds that will inspire and support collaboration around a beneficial purpose. You can exercise that kind of leadership from anywhere in your team or organization.
Here's a video of 'Mabes', Cory Weeds (sax), John Webber (bass) and Joe Farnsworth (drums) playing 'Mr PC' from his visit to The Cellar in Vancouver last September. The song is a tribute John Coltrane wrote for Paul Chambers, the bassist who played with him on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Take a break and listen for the masterful introducin' and compin' in this delightful performance.