The Uncomfortable Edge

By | February 11, 2016

David Bowie died and, in the tributes that followed, many people spoke of many things. One of the first personal recollections I heard was from CBC music journalist Laurie Brown who had interviewed Bowie six times over a period of about a dozen years. Their encounters, she said, were not so much interviews as they were conversations in which he was warm, attentive, engaging and, most of all, insatiably curious about everything. He wanted to know what she’d been up to: what music she was listening to; what books she was reading; what theatre she was seeing.

Charlie Rose, for his part, played clips from interviews he had had with Bowie and something Bowie said in one of them highlighted the role curiosity plays in keeping the artistic endeavour moving forward. “When you’re working in a comfortable way, you know nothing much is going to be produced. But when you start just slightly out of your depth and you feel you’re a little bit lost, that’s when you’re going to get something exciting going; something that’s either going to be a dismal failure or will be spectacularly what you want to do.” ‎

What was clear from listening to Bowie was that, knowing he’d produce nothing if he was in a comfortable mode, he deliberately put himself out of his comfort zone. And that, in turn, brought to mind an interview I’d heard with Gerry Granelli, the drummer who recorded Charlie Brown’s Christmas over fifty years ago with Vince Guaraldi. Playing jazz, he said, is all about finding the edge. Asked what the edge was, Granelli said that you’ll know you’re there when you feel uncomfortable. Which is why, at the age of 75, he told the interviewer that he looked to work with young players who would make him feel uncomfortable.

And there’s this from Alfonso Montuori in his paper, “Miles Davis: The Leadership Challenge of Successful Innovation.”

Interviews with Davis’s former band members make it clear that experimentation was not just encouraged, but expected. The well-known keyboard player Herbie Hancock reported that Davis wanted his band to perform together only on stage, literally practicing in front of an audience, a scary but enormously challenging proposition. One of the fundamental values driving Miles Davis and his bands was self-renewal. Davis was not happy cruising along on the wave of his reputation, recycling old material and old ideas. He strove to renew himself at regular intervals, whenever he felt he was too comfortable in a certain setting or style.

This got me thinking about leadership and risk-taking and the discomfit that comes with being on the edge.

What I find most striking about the Bowie, Granelli and Davis stories is their understanding that, as leaders, the renewal of their enterprises required their own self-renewal; that not only fellow band members, but they, too, would have to perform at the discomfiting edge where they’d feel a little out of their depth and a little bit lost. It’s a scary and challenging business.

I know something of the discomfiting edge. Every jazz performance is an at-the-edge shared act of an improvised, re-imagining of something familiar; a collective, real-time reinterpretation of a known tune. If you enter into that with goodwill and integrity, your aesthetic sensibilities and technical competence will be tested and stretched. When, as the leader of a jazz ensemble, I count in a tune on the bandstand, I’m not exempt from this testing and stretching. Engaging in this process with fellow musicians is how I become a better jazz musician and that’s how my self-renewal happens. I can’t take some disengaged, disinterested position outside of what must be a collaborative performance.

When organizations engage in processes of significant change or renewal, it can, and often does, happen that leaders imagine their role as one of oversight which leaves them untouched. I recall coming away from a meeting with a CEO who thought that changing his organization was akin to taking one’s car into a garage for servicing! It didn’t seem to occur to him that he might possibly be the organization’s most significant impediment to change.

I have nothing profoundly prescriptive to say to organizational leaders except to offer a few random thoughts about the importance of cultivating and nurturing a particular kind of disposition; one essential for the renewal of their organizations and themselves.

I’ll begin with an observation about a state of being that the great saxophonist, Lee Konitz, describes this way. “When I can’t hear anyone else, that’s a danger sign. When my attention is only on myself, I know I’m in trouble.” In a similar vein, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett has said, “If you can’t listen you can’t connect.” Which is why one of the greatest compliments one jazzer can pay another is to say that they have “big ears.”

A word of caution seems appropriate here. As a leader, surrounding yourself with sycophants who tell you what they know you want to hear can only exacerbate matters. Here you are really just listening to yourself. At such moments, the paradox of the leader being, at the same, both powerful and vulnerable looms large. There is, after all, a difference between listening and listening.

In 2011 Brian Dennehey appeared at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, acting in two plays: Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It was a gruelling schedule and he was asked how he managed it. Here’s what he said. “When you’re tired you can’t erect those elaborate barricades between yourself and your audience it’s amazing how many great performances come out of that inability to protect yourself.”

I have one more voice for you; one which regular readers of Random Riffs will recognize and may already be anticipating. When asked what it was like to play with musicians he’d never worked with before, the jazz pianist, Bill Mays, said, “If they’re egoless and fearless, it’ll be OK.” There are serious downsides to being one or the other; wonderful upsides to pulling off the paradoxical fusion.


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