“Super Competence” and the Death of Management

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

“Excessive reverence for the romantic illusion of “original thought” is the most fraudulent and destructive element in the institutionalized process of jazz education.” — Chuck Israels

It’s always a pleasure to hear Wynton Marsalis tell the stories of his life, music, and growing up in jazz. His raspy voice suggests a life well lived and his tall tales are captivating and seem decades old, even if he’s recounting yesterday’s trip to the grocery store. In a recent interview at a multinational finance firm before a crowd of nearly 1,000, Wynton shared insights on the relationship between jazz and business. Here are some of my takeaways:

Wynton has played many different styles of music but his accomplishments in classical and jazz are known best, likely because he’s won nine Grammy Awards (a few in each genre). Wynton’s training and practical experience in music are marked by interdisciplinarity, he moves seamlessly through perceived sonic divisions; an effort that requires intellectual agility, technical prowess, and talent.

As Innovation Thought Leader Scott Anthony explains (taken from his book, The Silver Lining):

“A good way to visualize what is required is to think about what a classically trained musician needs to do to become a world-class jazz musician. The musician has the right foundational knowledge and practical ability to make the transition. Continuing to play with accuracy and following principles of good musicianship continues to be important. But the transformation-seeking musician has to stop certain behaviors, such as following carefully laid out scripts displayed in music scores. The musician has to change the way he uses his ears. Instead of listening to ensure that everyone is playing in synch with each other, a jazz musician listens for unexpected changes. Finally, the musician has to start a new behavior—improvisation based on his personal synthesis of a variety of music styles. The transformation is possible. Jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Scott Joplin, and Shirley Horn were classically trained musicians. But it requires careful thinking and hard work.

Similarly, for leaders to move from the business equivalent of classical music (operational effectiveness) to jazz (innovation) there are things they need to stop, do differently, and start. Specifically, companies have to stop some innovation efforts to free up time and money for transformation (Chapter 2). They have to do more with less by improving the productivity of individual innovation initiatives and broader innovation programs (Chapters 3-6). They have to start focusing more intently on value-seeking customer segments (Chapter 7). Individuals need to start driving personal reinvention so they have the fluidity to master increasingly common paradoxes (Chapter 8).”

Scott thinks like a musician. The work of innovation requires thinking differently, liberating oneself from mental barriers such as tradition or formal training, and having the courage and agility to navigate uncertain terrain.

Jazz band clip art

As Wynton talked about key tenets of jazz — the blues, swing, and improvisation — I thought about how these qualities encouraged creativity and might lead to innovation.

The Blues
In jazz, this is better described than defined but in general, the blues is the feeling of longing that permeates the music. It’s a hybrid form — already interdisciplinary — “a synthesis” says Albert Murray, “of African and European elements, the product of an Afro-American sensibility in an American mainland situation.” (Stomping 63) As a hybrid entity, the blues captures the opposing elements (African and European) that yields the “unexpected changes” Scott mentions above. The blues musician actively synthesizes opposing elements when he plays, compounding the totality of his experiences.

Billie Holliday

The blues is not a verbal music, no matter the lyrics involved. Instead, the blues is marked by vocal nuance. This is important to note because in a culture that privileges systems of efficiency and quantitative data, the blues is a reminder of the liminal space between human error and possibility and indicates the inadequacy of precision and disciplinary specificity to yield comprehensive results. In its exactitude, specificity is limited; the blues, by contrast, is broad. So, words and phrases aren’t necessarily articulated with precision; they are bent, pulled, prodded, as vocal ambiguity drives the emotions expressed, capturing a wider range than precise musical articulation can allow.

In business, the blues can be thought of as the angst that arises from combining quantitative and qualitative data. By considering quantitative data in the context of qualitative data — the information we gather via observation, judgement, professional insights, experience, feeling — we enter the realm of uncertainty. We are challenged to move away from the objective markers of knowledge, interpret the data, trust our judgement, accept the consequences therein, and exhibit courage by managing the associated ambiguity and emotional duress. While systems of efficiency have been great for providing us with objective measures and have served as guideposts we can rely on for analysis; they have eroded our confidence in using judgement and common sense and have left us ill-equipped for functioning autonomously.

Data image

As Management Professor Richard D. Johnson of SUNY Albany suggests in a recent Harvard Business Review post, “Along with better data, we need to develop a more nuanced view of human qualities and human potential.” He asks, “Can we not only accept, but embrace, that some behaviors may not be reducible to easily quantifiable metrics, and that no amount of data can fully capture all of your, or my, best performance qualities?” In summary, “In a world that is increasingly driven by quantitative analyses of employees and performance, we need to find ways to efficiently incorporate both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of performance.” Musician educator Chuck Israels also observed, “An inability to deal with the selection of un-predetermined passages” in music students. The obsession with precision is ruining our ability to think creatively. This holds true is business too. A recent McKinsey study found, “Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise.” Ivy league education notwithstanding, we are afraid to go off script.

Wynton described swing as cooperation. We work with one another, cooperatively, to achieve a common goal. We help each other. Swing helps us understand our shared humanity; we rely on one another to achieve goals, to progress. Teamwork, group work, and such require our efforts to be cooperative or collaborative. You should read Joel Dinerstein’s book, Swinging the Machine. Think about how Henry Ford’s conveyor belt represented the automation in US culture during the Swing era and then consider the complexity represented by social media and the ways in which it has reshaped work today. As Carl Stormer says, work is looking a lot like jazz; which, as Martin Mueller of the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, says should be expected because jazz is a modern music — always in sync with the rhythms of our contemporary lives. We need training in how to solve complex problems with creative thinking.

Musician and educator Chuck Israels suggests that the problems of note selection be minimized in the early stages of learning to improvise. In this way, “deeply ingrained performance habits can be developed which will withstand the added strain of the “real time” problem of choosing what to play.” He tells us, “A separation of elements may be necessary in order to gain control of all that must eventually be integrated into the highest level of the improviser’s art.” Carl Stormer’s line, “Control is for beginners” is on point. Those who are inexperienced must follow rules habitually until these become reflexive responses. Israels notes, “Nothing is so well prepared as a great ‘spontaneous’ performance.”

Super competence

I was most intrigued by Wynton’s use of the term, “super competence” to describe improvisation. I’ve long understood improvisation as “the ultimate skill” demonstrating such mastery of a skill that its execution is not simply carried out but played as in being done, not only confidently and effortlessly but with a “dancer’s grace under the pressure of all tempos.” (Hero 25)

But “super competence”suggested something else — that talent need not be exceptional; one can be “good enough” and still improvise. That’s great news! It means most of us — if we work hard and apply ourselves — can improvise. We are capable of self-guided, independent work. This means we don’t need to be micro managed but can, instead, carry out duties sans oversight once we achieve the habits that make our actions reflexive.


This democratizes the realm of improvisation, a highly coveted skill. This means the average worker can learn a set of skills and, in time and practice (yes, practice, as in what musicians do), become good enough to work unattended. As the McKinsey report I mentioned earlier indicates, “Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance” articulates the angst of the struggle to articulate individuality amidst the crowd. Certainly, this is our struggle. We want workers who are competent and confident enough to work without continuous oversight or affirmation but who also stay focused on a larger goal. We want workers who know their jobs so well their actions and responses are reflexive and look like play. When we have a group of self-guided employees whose work looks like play, they will have mastered self-reliance, self-management, self-governance (to address Emerson’s concern) and super competence.

Is super competence the death of management? 

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

In one of my favorite Foreign Affairs articles, Secretary of State (former) Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds very much like the head of a multinational corporation with an ear bent towards listening to diverse constituents and reaching the geopolitical frontline. Acknowledging the changing global terrain, Clinton emphasizes interconnectedness and the changes necessary in diplomatic skills sets. She notes, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly…”. She continues, today’s ambassadors are, “responsible not only for managing civilians from the State Department and USAID but also for operating as the CEO of a multiagency mission.”[1]

How do we cultivate the skill of knowing how to communicate with civilians directly when prior experience required expertise in dealing only in elite circles and spheres of influence? 

In a really insightful TED talk, Paddy Ashdown identifies three major shifts in power. Watch Paddy’s talk below:


One thing that most intrigued me was the way Paddy correlated the growth of multinational corporations with international criminality, globalization means they share the same space. We get both the “good” and the “bad” at once. This mandates the rule of law but one that goes beyond our traditional nation-state thinking into the realm of global governance (not government). He notes “treaty based agreements” such as the G-20 and Kyoto as efforts in this direction. Paddy goes onto talk about our “multipolar world,” or a “European concert of balance, a five-sided balance” and “counter balance” and of course that got me to thinking about music….

I’ve written here about Global Swing and also about coordinating information from disparate sources in such a way that we not only hear the distinct “voices” but create a synthesis of meaning — harmony — in our heads (see “Six-Part Harmony.”) I’ve also written an article on the ways in which the cultural footprint of the blues and swing can be discerned in sectors as different as education, healthcare, business and governance. So, this stuff is heavy on my mind.

Today, I’m thinking about the relationship between diplomacy, multinational corporations, and swing as a model of governance. It seems to me that the skill set Clinton identifies as being necessary in our cadre of diplomats is the same skill set that leaders in multinational corporations need – the ability to communicate effectively, and even confidently, across and through sectors, with particular emphasis on those that seem unfamiliar.

In moving towards a system of global governance, we’ll need to listen to not only the most vociferous, those that have traditionally held the reigns of power, but those that have been historically and geopolitically marginalized. Paddy says, “We must reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.” Clinton advocates for “civilian power” and says we must reach “beyond governments to citizens directly.” New players on the global stage, MOOCs and US universities with an international bricks-and-mortar presence face similar challenges as they negotiate the realm of diplomacy and global governance through the entry-point of education. Employees at every level of the university – along with diplomats and multinational corporate leaders – must acquire new skills to be effective. There’s a lot of work in retraining to do!

Paddy informs us that the cultural model of a “European concert of balance” worked in an earlier historical period. Learning how to integrate globally is a central challenge for today’s players on the global stage and so I am convinced that cultural models hold the most promise. I’m placing my bet on swing. Let’s consider the two forms…

Fugues articulate distinct scripted voices that come together in a pleasing blend of sounds creating a unity that is both complex and simplistic. There is a beauty in fugues that soothes the soul. A fugue’s parts are transcribed and are to be performed in strict accordance with notations with very little room, if any, for improvisation. Fugues can be emotionally rich but deviations from the score are not encouraged, anticipated or desired.

Jazz is the music of active participation and it is jarring – or, at least, it can be. Collective improvisation – a la Jelly Roll Morton – comes first to mind. Jelly Roll’s music brings together a cacophony of instrumental voices in a highly textured, tightly woven musical statement where everyone’s voice is prominent, recognizably audible. Somehow, the “mess” of the music has synthesis. Part of this mess is in the unstructured articulation of voices at unexpected times. Everyone is gathered to play the same song but there’s really no way to predict how an individual musician will decide to play along. Uncertainty is inherent in jazz.

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

Swing is about coordinating the perceived cacophony and creating a musical flow – governance, if you will. Finding a way to integrate the seemingly disparate parts in such a way as to advance the score. A steady rhythm is important in swing because it drives the momentum. Henry Ford needed a reliable pace for his workers. Dancers need reliable beats to ensure well-articulated and well-placed steps. The work of cooperating with various global constituents – some of whom will seem unfamiliar and whose values systems will seem at odds with our own – will be messy. We must keep the “mess” and swing. We need people trained in coalescing eclectic parts and creating a cooperative flow.

Skills needed include: listening, collaboration, leadership, resilience, and the ability to exude grace under pressure

[1] Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 6, “Leading through Civilian Power” 14 -15