Leadership and the power of extreme gifts

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18 April 2015

Last month we had the fourth in our series of Windsor Experiences for Leaders that I have been running since October 2013. We had a lovely group of Chief Executives and Directors, and I felt truly privileged to work with them from mid-afternoon on day 1 through to mid-morning on day 3.

Never before have I experienced a situation where every one of the 17 people in the group was able to benefit from some really challenging – and always generous – personalised advice from others about their own development as a leader.

We had come together to discuss the fascinating topic of “jazz band leadership”, that is the subject of various other blog posts and also a couple of videos on this site.

 As we put in the blurb for this Windsor Experience:

 Some leadership models portray the ideal Chief Executive as someone conducting a symphony orchestra. The image that we will be exploring sees the CEO as more of a jazz band leader, always wanting to give everyone in their team their own moment in the sun, constantly improvising and testing out new sounds and rhythms as they go, always keen to delight their audience and share with them their passion and creativity.

What I want to do in this post is to capture a small number of propositions that emerged during our two-day “ideas jamming session” in Windsor Castle!

1 What matters most is the quality of the sounds that you create together. By comparison, how you are with each other counts for diddly squat

You know why I start with this, don’t you. In teams we can become so preoccupied with team dynamics and keeping each other sweet that we can almost forget what we’re there for.

If you’re a jazz band leader, you’re very clear what you’re there for. You want your band to create music together that’s so good that those who have come to listen to you just this once resolve to come back again and again.

Everything that you do with your band, in terms of the particular instruments that members play, who takes the lead and how often you rehearse together are all about what you are creating together and what impact you’re hoping to have on those who come to hear your music.

Think product, think impact” – that’s the maxim.

How you are with each other and what you do together, and when, are all about creating a top quality product that makes people tell their friends that they need to come and hear you and see if the experience gives them the huge kick that they got out of it.

Once we have this proposition in our minds, improvisation isn’t only fine, it’s necessary.

Of course it’s right and proper to make it up as you go.  If you’re focused on what you create together you know that all the time you’ll be learning together, and as you learn more you want to re-invest the benefits of that learning into what you’re co-creating.

Put in this way, it’s all so obvious and easy. And yet, when we read the vast amount of literature that has been produced on the leadership behaviours of top performing teams, this simple truth so often seems to have become rather lost.

The truth is that many teams that like to see themselves as top performers are actually far from that, because they have become hooked on some of their own internal “stuff” about team dynamics and managing egos and the daily and weekly dramas that are such a big part of the life of working in teams.

Think of a top performing team as a top performing band, then you know you will still have the egos and the dramas, but you will also have a very clear focus on the music that you make together.

If you want to be a top band, you know you’ve got to be about constantly improving the way your different sounds blend into a harmonious whole, with each member of the band listening incredibly hard to the sounds that others are creating to make sure that they are all linking in with and showcasing each other’s sounds in a way that makes the rest of us go “wow”!


2 Valuing our own extreme gifts in a way that most of us find incredibly difficult

For me, this is one of the biggest insights of this Windsor Experience. I had a sense of it beforehand and it was confirmed very strongly through our discussions. 

Through my one-to-one coaching work with a range of Chief Executives and Directors, I have come to appreciate the fact that some of the very best CEOs are quite extreme in certain of their behaviours.

This really is no surprise, because the sheer drivenness of entrepreneurial leaders makes it so easy for some of their greatest strengths to tip over into excessive behaviours.

Some are great at owning these behaviours with their teams whilst others are in denial about them.  “Me - extreme? Never. Remind me, what does OCD stand for?”

As we discussed this in Windsor, we quickly relaxed with the idea that most members of the group tended to have certain extremes in the ways they behave. What was more important was that we saw how their response can be to assume that they need to lurch the other way

So if they have a tendency, say, to become over-involved in detail, there is a danger that instead of just backing off a little they will disengage too much.

They see the extreme behaviour and come up with an extreme response!

“Why aren’t you more accepting of how you are?” we asked a number of members of the group. “Surely what we need to address is the impact of your extreme behaviour on the quality of what you create as a team.”

"Don't dilute your extreme gift ..."

Let me give two examples:

- A male member of the group, with an exceptional ability to communicate emotion, assumed that he should moderate his capacity to convey emotion in case staff regard him as over-emotional.

The advice of the others? “Don’t do that. Be okay about wearing your heart on your sleeve.”

Those who had never met him before were the first to say that his ability to convey emotion made it possible for people to achieve a pretty instant and deep connection with him within minutes of listening to him talk.

Yet his assumption had been that he needed to moderate this extreme gift of his, rather than trying to maximise the opportunities that it could create for him to engage with those he is seeking to lead.

- Another member of the group with what we described as “high energy charisma” feared coming across as over-enthusiastic and “OTT”.

The advice of the group? "Be aware of how you use this gift, but don’t make the mistake of diluting it to the point where you devalue what is an exceptional gift”.

How easy it is for us to want to make sure that those around us are happy with us!

This is why it’s so helpful to take ourselves back to our image of the band, looking outward at the audience and wanting every member of that band to be as brilliant as they can be.

Does the band leader say to the brilliant cellist, “Tone it down, mate, we don’t want you to show the others up”?


The whole point about a top band is that every member needs to be encouraged to demonstrate their own brilliance as a musician, and indeed to have some space in which the rest of us feel compelled to acknowledge their brilliance.

In the same spirit, a CEO leading their team on the journey "from good to great" should find ways of saying to every member,

“I want you to concentrate on really stretching yourself to be as outstanding as you can possibly be.  You can take my word for it that if your brilliance creates any problems for anyone else around here, it's my job to help deal with that.  You just get on with being as brilliant as you can be”.

3 Acknowledging the extreme gifts that every member brings to the team

If one of our top lessons was that we need to value our extreme gifts more highly, I would say that another key lesson was that we all need to get better at owning their potential downsides – so that it’s as easy as possible for others in the team to discuss them with us without having to "dance on broken glass"!

I would say that this is very doable, so long as we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the benefits that some of our “extremes” can bring to the band. The proposition here goes as follows:

- If we start off wanting to maximise our contribution where we’re at our very best, in a way that brings visible benefits to the band as a whole, we should be able to rely on others to support us in managing the downsides of our extreme gifts.

This is where the band leader/ CEO has such a key role to play, in acknowledging the different gifts that different members bring to the band.

We all come as a "package deal"

Once we’re talking openly about the gifts that different members bring, it’s much easier to accept that when we join together in teams, we each represent something of a “package deal”.

As part of our package, we each bring some fantastic behaviours and skills (let’s hope!) and also some not so fantastic behaviours. 

It’s no surprise that these are often linked to our greatest gifts.

For example, a number of the members of this Windsor group were quite happy to describe themselves as perfectionists.

One of the main characteristics of perfectionists is that they can be very tough on themselves, and will often own this fact, too.

Another characteristic of perfectionists is that they will tend to be pretty tough on others, as well – not as tough as they are on themselves, but pretty tough nonetheless.

However, what they are not good at – and sometimes terrible at – is owning this tendency to project their toughness onto others.

Inevitably, where they don’t own this behaviour, they can so easily be seen to be projecting intolerance and unreasonableness.

The answer? They need to own their perfectionist as much as they can.

Whenever they are giving others grief about something not coming up to their exacting standard, it can be ever so helpful for them to say that they routinely give themselves much more grief than they ever give anyone else!

Yet there remains a deep-seated reluctance among many of us to own those behaviours of ours that others find difficult, in a way that makes it possible for them to discuss them with us.

I have found that where a CEO or Exec Director tries to discuss their difficult behaviours with those who have to bear the brunt of them, what comes back time and again is appreciation for the very fact that they are demonstrating the self-awareness necessary to open up this conversation.

This goes a long way towards making those behaviours that much more manageable!

Challenging ourselves

If we take ourselves back to the image of the jazz band, it is easier to challenge ourselves in relation to our own behaviours:

- Is a particular behaviour helping the band with playing music of a calibre that makes people turn their head and say “What was that?”

- Or is the behaviour having little impact on how others respond to the band?

The answers are easy, aren’t they.

Where our behaviours have little impact on the band’s performance, the case for asking colleagues to put up with behaviours that bug them is pretty weak.

Where our behaviours are seen to help the band create music that delights our audience, and aren’t too alienating or disruptive, then others in the band should support us with being ourselves, so that we can all keep on delighting our audience.

Yes, we always want to be thoughtful and considerate towards our peers, that goes without saying.

But if the band is gaining overall, and the sounds that we’re creating together are getting better and better, then it’s not unreasonable to expect others to go with it.

4 Always working for new combinations to help you avoid getting stuck

One of the themes of our discussions in Windsor was that it is very easy for teams to develop a “stuckness” that slows them down not just over weeks and months, but sometimes for years.

Whenever I work with a Board or Executive team, the key to achieving breakthroughs is to identify their main areas of stuckness, in a way that makes it possible for the team to own them and agree that they want to leave them behind.

All teams get caught up in all sorts of "spiders' webs".

The key is to get the team to accept that they have got tangled up in something that is slowing down them, big time. 

There's no great need for any post-mortem to understand why.  All that matters is that they change their behaviours in one way or another to create a sense of freeing themselves from this web and building up speed again.

One of the best ways of creating this sense of freedom and constant movement is to commit yourselves to improvising that much more.

This is, of course, one of the reasons a number of us were so drawn to the notion of jazz band leadership.

What modal jazz has shown us is the scope for almost limitless improvisation through all sorts of different combinations.

Isn’t that just the polar opposite of how so many Executive teams work today!

How predictable are they in the ways they organise themselves into sub-groups, and how predictable are so many CEOs in allocating different leadership roles to different individuals.

Individual Directors so easily trap themselves into particular roles, and individual CEOs so easily reinforce this role-trapping by the ways in which they allocate tasks among the team.

Hence the whole proposition at this Windsor Experience that most of us could flex up hugely the ways we work with others in teams.

Instead of trying to work through difficult topics as a single Executive team, until the point where the whole team gets itself stuck, and then letting yourselves remain there for far too long, why not try a different approach?

Make some movement forward in engaging with a difficult theme, and experience that movement forward together, as a team.

Then say that you’ve got some agreement among the team about your overall sense of direction and so what you now need are a small number of people to spend a little time together working up the details further and coming up with their own implementation plan.

Now it's time for the jamming session

In this situation, one of the roles of the jazz band leader is to remind those who are taking the team's ideas forward that they should see themselves as in a jamming session.

If at any time they get stuck, instead of going back and analyzing and assessing - and defending and justifying - they just need to create the space for one of their number to strike up a new chord and find a different way in to creating their winning tune.

Successful outcomes can evolve in all sorts of different ways, and the challenge of leadership is to ensure that this process of evolution is characterized by a sense of momentum and positivity so that you don’t let yourselves be distracted by any side issues if and when you get stuck.

Just keep focused on that slot that you want to take in the recording studio when you are going to create a new set of sounds that draw on all of your extreme gifts, with minimum loss of quality because you are all working together in covering for each other’s weaknesses so that your different forms of brilliance can shine through as clearly as possible.

5 Creating time to discuss your shared ambitions as a band. Do you want a world tour in 2016, or are you content to settle for something rather more modest? Just a 10-country tour, perhaps?

At our first Windsor Experience for Leaders in October 2013, we took the theme of collective ambition as our core challenge.

We ended up with a very clear proposition that teams that want to be top performers in their sector need to spend more time together working through – and if need be, battling through - what you see as your core ambitions as a team.

I come back to this now, as our final major heading, because in many ways it takes us back to the opening proposition about us not letting ourselves be diverted by introspective discussions about team dynamics that hold back so many teams from being as good as they could possibly be.

Why are some teams so very hungry to be the best?

The answer lies in part in the sorts of people in your team; for certain leaders, this is how you’re built, and it really doesn’t matter one little bit which sector or country you’re in.

Whilst this is true for some top teams, there are others who start off with wonderful intentions (“We want to go from good to great and won’t rest until we’re the very best”) and find themselves gradually dropping down the leader board as they become more and more distracted by various dramas.

So often, they settle for second best because they are not 100% geared in to where they want to go and what they want to achieve.

No diversion from your core mission

It is at these times, when a team has allowed itself to be diverted to some degree from its core mission, when it can be so good for the CEO to set aside half a day for a discussion on the theme of where you want to be going as a team, and how ambitious you are to go as far as you possibly can.

If you ask this as a genuine question, you will find the best members of your team becoming visibly re-energised as they talk through their ambitions for the team and the wider organisation.

It’s a terrific process to take a team through, and time and again I have found it so exciting to experience a team releasing immense reserves of collective energy simply by going through the shared process of setting themselves a series of challenging goals.

Sharing a sense of higher purpose

This means that as CEO you can then say, “So these are the ambitions that we share, and they’re truly exciting and stretching … and with them in our sights, how can we support each other more and play to each other’s strengths more so that we really can go on to achieve them?”

Why is it so important to focus on collective ambition in this way?

Because it makes it possible for every member of your team to share this sense of higher purpose, which you absolutely must have if you are to avoid all of those potential diversions that can distract any team, and result in you saying the right words but not delivering the performance that you’re looking for.

What jazz band leadership can offer you

One of the mistakes we’ve made in the past has been to assume that so long as teams have a shared sense of higher purpose and ambition, that should do the trick.

What is now so much clearer is that they are essential but not enough.

You also need a process for moving things on if people get stuck, and keeping you all as dynamic and open and fluid as you can possibly be, day in and day out.

That is what jazz band leadership can offer you by the bucketload.

If and when two members of your team get in each other’s way, as they can do for all sorts of reasons, you just change the combination.

Hopefully there will be enough of a shared focus on what you want to achieve, and a hunger to get there together, so that when two member of the team find that they’re getting in each other’s way they are the ones who say that a new combination is called for.

If they don’t, others will hopefully step forward, volunteering to take their place for a while on the basis that the whole team is committed to moving forward and not letting any side issues get in your way.

Pace and momentum

Jazz band leadership is all about achieving the sense of pace and momentum that bands naturally achieve when they’re jamming.

If a set of sounds don’t quite work in the way intended, what you don’t do is set up a sub-committee to examine what went wrong and then monitor techniques for instrument playing over the next year.

You just try some different ways of combining different sounds.

You combine the extreme gifts of individual members of the band with a shared commitment to managing each other’s downsides, expecting that at any time any one of you can strike a wrong note, and if and when this happens the others need to perform even better so that the wrong note is quickly forgotten.

Of course, there will be moments when you find yourselves reflecting on your own inadequacies  and find that compromising your potential for greatness. 

In Windsor we agreed that we all tend to spend too long focusing on our inadequacies as leaders, and could benefit from “getting over ourselves”. 

Instead of looking inward in such a self-doubting way, we should look outward more, as if we were musicians on the stage looking across the faces of all those looking towards us - and focusing on how we want to inspire them to even greater delight.

Striving to achieve in the moment

One of the great attractions of retaining this mental image of the band is that we know the band needs to strive for greatness in the moment.

You know that you can’t just come onto the stage and say that you played a great gig six months ago, and expect deafening applause.

You need to be fresh and up for it, constantly moving on the quality and variety of the sounds that you create, always pushing yourselves to achieve greater things, always engaging that bit more keenly and powerfully with your audience.

Creating, valuing and engaging

Jazz band leadership – it’s about top teams saying to your staff and customers and partners:

- Judge us by what we create together

- See how we value each individual member of our team and believe in their stardom, and

- See how we want to reach out and engage you more as we seek to achieve greater heights.

Jazz band leadership: It’s a set of exciting and powerful ideas coming together, hopefully to help empower those leaders who still don’t trust your gut quite enough and need to encourage your band to get on and play the very best and just keep on playing and developing and co-creating up to the point where those who follow your music chant “Can’t stop now!”

Jazz Band leadership: if you really want to be the best, it could offer you a great deal.

It's most useful for top teams that have a real sense of shared ambition and are truly hungry to achieve success that is almost impossible through the conventional mechanisms that are beloved of organisations.

It gives you a greater sense of momentum and fluidity as a team.

And it thrives in a high trust creative culture, where leaders want to be part of a team that truly values individuality as well as the shared might of the team.

The key to top performing teams

At our next Windsor Experience for Leaders on November 20-22 we will continue to explore and draw out these ideas.

We are fascinated by the role of exceptional leaders, who bring extreme gifts to their role as CEO but aren’t always as good as they might be in supporting other members of their team in developing their own distinctive roles as exceptional leaders.

In one way or another, it is the extreme gifts of individual leaders that provide the key to top performing teams.

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