Real Leadership: Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Thing

The American Master of Music, Duke Ellington, also stands as an ideal role model of leadership for the emerging business and nonprofit world. As the global workplace moves toward open workspaces and sees the value of multi-dimensional team filled with hard-to-traditionally-manage creative professionals, a look into Ellington’s leadership style can inspire outstanding results.

The master key to Ellington’s style was knowing that creativity is a team sport. Collaboration, whether with songwriters or musicians, galvanized a single idea, turning into a massive alchemical expression with more creative power than an individual has to offer. He was always open to exploring works-in-progress with an obsession and passion so rare he named his autobiography Music Is My Mistress. He was open to finding what worked to unlock the best product possible, drawing on different musical traditions, different partnerships, and different expressive styles to make the music sound “like a girl saying yes,” which was his wry way of saying the magic power of collaboration worked.

Another element in Ellington’s leadership style was creating a group framework that mixed form (the formal structure of a composition) with areas within that form that allowed for and encouraged, even demanded, improvisation (personal expression within the confines of the project). This mix of structure and creativity within the structure played to the strength of individuals. This point depends on the next one to resonate; he knew his peoples’ particular talents deeply.

It is important to note that many of the best players left the Ellington fold, but most eventually returned. Without exception, their reputation, their legacy, and their memories rest on the time spent with Ellington. Something in his nurturing leadership style left them less capable of expressing themselves as fully, as freely away from his influence. He knew his team so well, you could posit, that he was better able to judge what they did best than they were. Ellington showcased his players in miniature masterpieces, displaying a soloist against the backdrop of a tightly knit ensemble. His players knew when to support and when to lead.

Ellington could take variety of backgrounds (formally trained, raw talent, hot shots, team players, the driven, the disciplined) and weave them into a singular force via his vision, strategy, and trust-building style. His music stressed the unique contributions of each band member, fashioned into something greater, into “music that sounds good.”

Finally, he let the product – the music – speak for itself. Duke was elegantly dismissive of analysis: “too much talk,” he said, “stinks up the place.”

Listen to Ellington’s music as you would read a book on leadership—his canon is filled with sonic pleasures and profound lessons on organization.