I had a great discussion a few weeks ago with Joe Dimino for his Famous Interviews podcast. It was a lot of fun, and Joe steered our conversation in surprising directions. That shouldn't be a surprise. He's also the host of the Neon Jazz Radio Show and Interviews. If you're into great music and engaging interviews with artists and composers, be sure to listen in. Since talking with him, though, I've been thinking how great leadership is like jazz. It might not move you like jazz, but thinking about your leadership as a jazz-like combination of art and science can make the journey to never-being-finished-learning a little more approachable.
Learn the fundamentals
Even if you've got a natural ear for music, you don't pick up a bass guitar and start playing like Vic Wooten, Bootsy Collins, or Flea(!). (I've often wished that were the case!) You can't improvise until you learn the fundamentals. Practicing scales, reading and playing other people's music, learning to play at different tempos. All of these things give you a language to use during a live performance, where the expected environment might change with little notice. Those fundamentals give you a rich body of knowledge to draw on.
Your legal practice is the same, and it's the reason new litigators aren't typically thrown into high stakes trials and new transactional attorneys aren't typically asked to negotiate on behalf of the firm's biggest clients. Learning the relevant statutory law is like learning to read music. It's a start, but it's not sufficient. You need rules of evidence, rules of procedure, unique court rule and judicial preferences, interpretation provided by case law, and nuanced expectations of practice in a particular niche.
Leadership also has certain fundamentals that can be practiced. Listening, communicating, and thinking strategically are skills that can be combined in nuanced ways and employed to make delegation, feedback, vision-setting and change management easier and more effective.
Collaboration makes great music
You don't have to look far to see the extraordinary results that come from collaboration. Two of my favorite (musical) examples are The Traveling Wilburys and Ginger Baker's collab with Fela Kuti. (Shame on you if you're not familiar with either projects.) When great musicians team up, you get experiences that add up to greater than the sum of their parts. Last year I saw Yo Yo Ma perform with Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award-winning Cuban jazz clarinetist and composer Paquito D’Rivera. They were joined for part of the performance by ehru musician Cathy Yang. If you've thought of pairing a "Chinese two-stringed fiddle" with cello and clarinet you've got a broader imagination than I do. But the result was "joyful and mournful and transcendent."
The same is true in your legal offices. Great attorneys produce great legal work. Research, analysis, writing, and argument, done with precision, deliver results. But collaboration with other great (and growing) attorneys, paralegals, and staff delivers better results, faster. You can do it all. But you can't do it all at once. It's possible to find others who have skills and abilities that complement yours. Shoring up your weaknesses, or just giving you the freedom to focus on areas of practice you more enjoy, can create opportunities for everyone to shine.
Collaboration often feels like a risk, especially when you're early in your career, but finding collaborators early means you have opportunities to find your unique rhythm together, and that unique sound. Did you know that bands like U2, Green Day, Live (👈🏽from my hometown high school!) came together in high school or earlier? Work the fundamentals, and then find people to collaborate with. You'll get better faster, and more people will be interested in your product.
Listen to get it right
Experts working together sound like an elementary school orchestra if they're not playing the same song. But the same song is more than just having the right sheet music. All of those fundamentals have to be layered in the right ways. Tempo, tone, volume, etc., all matter to make what we're doing together come out right. To do that, musicians have to be keenly aware of what everyone else is doing. Sometimes the structure of the organization makes this easier. The orchestra conductor gives clear guidance to keep everyone sounding good. In small, more dynamic groups, communication is key, and the most important part of that communication is listening to what's going on around you.
If you want to get the most out of your team, make listening a key part of how you communicate. In a big firm, it might be common practice to overburden your new associates. (It's the way you came up, right?) But listening allows you to spread the work out, ensure everyone is growing and contributing, and mitigate the risk of burnout. There will be times when you have to ask more from someone, but running them at 110% of their capacity is a recipe for losing them (and undermining the support they give you).
"Sometimes I rhyme slow, sometimes I rhyme quick." (Nice & Smooth) Not only do you need to adapt to what your ensemble presents -- driving the tempo, changing the mood -- but you need to be responsive to the environment and the crowd.
In the same way, leaders should not only listen and respond to their teams, but also be prepared to changing circumstances and client demands. Learning the fundamentals of your trade and of your client will make all the difference. Do you know what skills everyone on your team actually excels at? Do you know what's most important to the client about this matter so that you can react in real time to protect their underlying interests if things develop quickly? Slowing down to "check in" and losing an opportunity is costly. Better to get completely dialed in on the front end (i.e., learn the fundamentals of your client) so that you can be adaptable later.
Experimental jazz. Avant-garde jazz. Free jazz. Music that lives outside of conventions, blends rules and expectations. You can't create something truly original if you're not willing to try something that hasn't been done. You have to step outside "this is how your write/play music." Could we have a full music lexicon without John Coltrane?
As a leader, there will be times for playing it safe and being conservative. Following "the rules" of leadership. But sometimes the circumstances, the client, or your team will need you to be creative. The rest of the firm is coming back to the office but you think your practice group is thriving fully remote? Try it. Your day is stacked with meetings but you have a sense that your team needs to see you "in the trenches with them" today prepping for a significant client engagement or settlement negotiation? Shuffle your calendar.
Will every risk be a winner? No. But I bet you'll find your risks pay off far more often than they don't (because we're usually miscalculating our risks).
Always be learning
Finally, a true expert never stops learning. Mastery of an instrument usually means realizing that its potential is infinite. A virtuoso's continued growth and exploration of their talent and their instrument is evident in their changing and evolving catalogue of music. If Miles Davis had stopped at Blue Period, we'd never have Bitches Brew.
The same is true for us. Being a good leader is ... well, good. Being a great leader is better. But neither is sufficient. We owe it to ourselves and to the people to whom and for whom we are responsible to always be working at learning, growing, improving.
If you look up to Ginger Baker, Miles Davis, Esperanza Spalding, or Jimmie Smith, or you want to inspire teams, organizations, or countries like Jacinda Arden, John Echohawk, Clarence Darrow, or Colin Powell, start leading like a musician. Work the fundamentals; find great collaborators and listen to what they're doing; find new opportunities and take risks; and always be learning.
When you're ready to work with a partner who can help you see, plan, and operate outside the box, give me a call and let's talk about your practice and your goals. Set up a Legal Leadership Strategy Session. You don't have to feel overwhelmed by trying to learn how to delegate, supervise, give feedback, manage conflict, engage your clients, and keep the rest of your life in order. You can step into that new role of responsibility -- as a partner, practice group lead, executive director, VP, GC, or senior associate -- without learning everything through trial and error. Let me help you shortcut getting to your goals.