The Lost Ingredient Of Great Leadership: Improvisation

There is a fascinating similarity between Theresa May’s lackluster election campaign and the fall-out from the British Airways ‘glitch’ that grounded almost its entire fleet over the Bank Holiday weekend. In this era of instantaneous disruption, the more that leaders and their public relations gurus become obsessed by control, the less likely they will be able to lead when chaos, mess and uncertainty strike.

Both the Tory leader and BA’s Chief Executive Alex Cruz have magnified the seriousness of their situations by robotic responses that fail to engage the public. May’s team continue to bore everyone rigid in one of the least inspirational (and needed) general elections ever with their ‘strong and stable’ broken record. Meanwhile, Cruz has forbidden his team from speaking to the public after issuing an absurd and threatening email whose subtext is basically you’re either with us or against us.

What both brands have chosen to do is embrace sudden chaos by trying to seek ever-greater levels of control. They are following binary leadership rules in an age of digital disruption. You can no longer contain a story through micro-management. The world is too fluid, channels of communication too numerous, the ability to engage too simple for that to be the case.

Leaders of companies or political parties tend to reach the top because of carefully-managed career development. Typically, their successes have far outweighed their mistakes, the latter often being expertly blamed on someone or something else. They have nearly always been in control and are under the impression that that is what effective leadership requires in times of difficulty.

Yet they are the leadership graduates of an out-dated orthodoxy. Chaos, risk, uncertainty, agility, collaboration, spontaneity – these are the traits that leaders need to embody rather than be controlling, defensive, ultra-organised and dogmatic.

I recently came across a fascinating book that equates the principles of jazz with the new requirements of leadership in a disruptive age.

Frank Barrett, in Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz, argues that the best jazz players embrace complexity and constant change by improvising, a skill that leaders need to perfect. These artists spontaneously create novel responses and take calculated risks without the benefit of a carefully scripted strategy. The fact that they are deliberately unsure of the outcomes doesn’t fill them with fear but fuels their creativity and ability to find solutions.

In a jazz band, when mistakes are made they are not pored over, the team collaborates to make things better. And crucially, other people’s ideas are not stifled because everyone is obsessed with being in charge. Rather, they are inspired by an apparent lack of control. They are more free to experiment and more attuned to supporting each other.

It’s a strikingly similar philosophy to the fail-fast mantra of Silicon Valley. Try something out, see what happens, make it better, collaborate, repeat. Of course it doesn’t always work but it teaches leaders to embrace messiness instead of doing everything they can to avoid it.

Our connected world is not structured or ordered. It is permanently in flux. Social media is the embodiment of that chaos. We literally don’t know who it will connect us to, where it will take us, what it will tell us next. And we crave that chaos, that randomness, that unplanned connectivity.

Theresa May, as can be seen from her rare and uninspiring contacts with voters and the media, clearly fears it. Bizarrely, her opponent Jeremy Corbyn, for all his many faults as a leader, rather seems to enjoy it when things aren’t going his way. Perhaps he’s used to it.

Instead of using chaos to bring it closer to its customers in a time of severe crisis, British Airways has tried to pull up the shutters by issuing a series of ineffectual public relations videos which make it look less connected to the reality of the situation and people’s grievances than ever.

Instead of reacting with creative spontaneity, leaders and their phalanx of public relations advisers seem to be using insanely old-fashioned tactics to avoid tackling a problem head-on. They’ve not worked out what jazz great Duke Ellington knew all along: ‘A problem is a chance for you to do your best.’


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