Jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis’ is a virtuoso musician, educator, philanthropist, composer, author, producer, and jazz evangelist. His drive and talent have yielded nine Grammies, 30 honorary degrees, a Pulizer Prize, a Nation Medal of the Arts, and many other honors.
It’s tempting to think of these individual accolades as individual feats. But that’s not so.
It’s more appropriate to think about these kinds of accomplishments as the result of visionary leadership we normally ascribe to great politicians and Fortune 500 CEO’s.
Mr. Marsalis leads a troupe of creatives with a participatory, egalitarian, style. He is the unquestioned leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, but if you have ever seen them perfom he does little to stand out from the group — until you hear him play.
He’s not a mercurial, egomaniacal bandleader in the mold of Miles Davis or Charles Mingus. Marsalis empowers others to assert leadership on the bandstand. Note, this is quite distinct from the perjoritive ‘leading from the rear,’ which describes ‘leaders’ who follow the herd, and claim to be leading people where they want to go.
Clearly a secure leader, Marsalis encourages those he leads to take a star turn. The upside is that every member of the band, who is virtuosic in their own right, has the creative room to give their best effort to achieve individual and group success. This simply doesn’t happen in the vast majority of organizations.
This is different from other bands, jazz or otherwise that may tolerate outliers. As Mr. Marsalis has been know to say, those who do not measure up, on and off the bandstand, get “sent home” because tolerating outliers and poor performers is bad for group morale.
For the unititiated, leading creatives can seem a nightmare scenario akin to herding kittens. For Marsalis it is harmony, musical and otherwise, that has kept the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra the world’s premier jazz ensemble.
He obviously has the bona fides to command the respect and loyalty of the orchestra. He has created a safe space where everyone has room to be emotionally invested in the creative process. Also, he is confident enough to accept that his are not the only good ideas, but that good ideas are where you find them.
Photo Credit: Windelbo