“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? 

Albert Murray’s Influence Beyond the Blues

Albert Murray was 97 when he passed away in his Harlem apartment on Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 7:30PM. It was a moment those of us closest to him had been expecting and when the moment finally came, the foot soldiers in his command knew just what to do. A series of calls, emails, and text alerts signaled to all — the time had come. Some of us convened in his home to offer comfort to the family; hear his long-time caretaker’s stories of his final moments, watch a VHS of his 50th wedding anniversary, toast the magnitude of the man, and contact the media.

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste


In the days that followed, there have been many tributes to Murray. I have remained silent; the articles written – when combined – offer a fair assessment of Murray and his work. Fellow Murrayite Paul Devlin shared an article written by Daniel Matlin that motivated me to join the discussion. Matlin gets off to a good start, quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr. in describing Murray as a “militant integrationist” Ahhh yes; that line of thinking will move us in a direction we’ve not yet ventured in re-membering Murray. In his seminal text, The Omni Americans, Murray famously defined American culture as “incontestably mulatto.” (22) Matlin’s historical timeline — his delineation of the riots, their impact, and the shifting discourse from the civil rights issues of the South to the urban blight in the North — is insightful. His deft positioning of the intellectual and philosophical divide between those who laid bare the urban blight of Northern cities and those who celebrated the “creativity and agency of the black poor” is instructive. As Matlin asserts, Murray’s writings often countered “pathologism by adopting a diametrically opposed position that was no less partial and exaggerated, and that tended toward a troubling romanticization of the lives of the black urban poor.”

Indeed. So, let’s begin THAT discussion….

The integrationist ideology advanced in Murray’s nonfiction and depicted fictionally in his Scooter series lacked the overt edginess and violence of the Jim Crow era, the tumultuous Civil Rights era, and subsequent racial strife. As Matlin suggests, Murray’s writing seemed out of touch. This criticism is not without merit. However, there are two aspects about Murray you should know: Albert Murray was an Air Force officer and a man who believed, unwaveringly, in the power of educational excellence. As such, Murray saw a world beyond localized conflict. Instead of harnessing the energy of legitimate resentment or anger towards social and economic injustice and transforming these emotions into more of the same in a “boots-on-the-ground” effort to effect change; Murray employed a strategy that had the potential to change the governing structure of society.

In the culture of so-called black Americans, Murray found the arsenal for revolutionary change — the creative transformation of the blues and the harmonious collaboration of jazz in the form of swing. In the trenches of civil unrest words, ideas, and bodies could become casualties of sectarian fighting. So from his Spyglass tree – the eighth floor of his Harlem apartment – Murray looked down on the rooftops and streets, considered the vast expanse of human endeavor and possibility, and developed a strategy – a cultural coping mechanism – for combating injustice, long term and worldwide.

The Necessity of heroes 

The Scooter Murray created was a storybook hero, an archetype, whose exploits were meant to instruct the masses. If Scooter’s do-good nature seemed to belie the very real dangers of Jim Crow, it was because he saw a world of possibility in spite of the perpetual threats to his mind, body and spirit. Indeed, Scooter was Murray’s “(local) personification of the hope… of mankind.” (Hero and the Blues, 92) Armed with a rich culture, solid education, an inquisitive nature, and steel-rugged determination, Scooter was a “prediction and even a promise” a “warning as well as an inspiration” of the meaningful change to come. (Hero, 92) Those, who like Scooter, wielded razor-sharp intellect and demonstrated intellectual and emotional agility could be central players in societal transformation – not in the streets – but on the level of policy; an effort that required deep integration into new and more complicated environments and the “high grade point average” Murray wrote about so often. (Briarpatch, 20)

JALC Wall: Emilio, Jose, Albert Murray


Education & revolutionary change

Murray noted, “Many confuse revolution with rebellion.” (Briarpatch, 18) Murray reminded his readers that the “rebellion part, as rugged as it may get to be from time to time, is only incidental. It is the revolutionary change that counts” and in Murray’s estimation, education would be the key. So, at the 1978 Honors Convocation at Howard University, Murray advised his audience to be “outstanding students.” “What” he asked “could be more subversive in the United States!” (18) Indeed, in light of the privatization of education, the frenzied high-stakes testing, the rising cost of higher education, etc. – Murray’s insights are as timely as ever.

From the particular to the universal 

The dichotomy Matlin creates – castigating or celebrating black American life – is not sufficient for studying Murray. Murray’s writing on the hybrid nature of the blues and jazz and their rightful place in discussions of US identity are key to understanding the vast influence of his thinking. The blues and swing represent the relationship between the particular and universal. For Murray, “the intellectual’s very first step should represent an effort to approach life in universal terms…. To become as cosmopolitan as possible.” Further, he advised, “you reach the universal or the cosmopolitan through the particular.” (Briarpatch, 18)

So what does this mean?

It means by recognizing the individuality expressed through the blues we gain insight into larger group dynamics. The blues with its deep emotion, inherent call-and-response pattern, and ultimate catharsis, acknowledges and affirms humanity. The human desire to connect is revealed through the blues as is the potential to transform, endure and perhaps thrive amidst even the most inhumane circumstances or conditions. Jazz with its polyrhythms, multi instrumentation, and varied configurations represents the complexity of group dynamics. The blues is the common denominator, connecting individuals emotionally. When individuals recognize their shared emotion — when they listen to one another – they can develop empathy for each other. When jazz musicians bend their instrumental sounds to the fragility of the human voice, the wailing, moaning, and longing so often associated with the blues; they acknowledge, integrate, and emulate human emotion and make it part of the group’s consciousness and forward movement. When this is part of swing, it is the ultimate form of cooperation or collaboration because it indicates we’re listening to one another and moving in the same direction.

Writ large, the relationship between the blues and jazz offers insight into community formation, organizational structure, and the possibilities of large-scale collaboration. Championing the blues as a necessary component of jazz acknowledges the myriad contributions of Americans of African descent in the creation of the broader US national identity. It is also a mechanism by which to acknowledge and integrate the historically marginalized and disenfranchised into the broader fabric of American life. By transference, this is a template that can be applied across geopolitical borders because every region, every country has its own blues. Swing represents a coordinated effort. Make no mistake, spreading jazz – especially in the form of swing – whether by musical tours, educational programming, online streaming, etc., is an inherently radical act because it makes people aware of their individual voices and their collective power. This is the connection between jazz and democracy. One need look no further than to the Arab Spring to understand the transformative power of people acknowledging individual suffering, collaborating, and effecting meaningful change. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen insightfully noted, “jazz consistently represented a stealth weapon” during the Cold War – the same is true today. (Satchmo, 28)


Beyond the Blues…

And there’s more… When multinational corporations enter into established or emerging market areas, their activities are not unlike that of the musician playing blues-based jazz. The corporate behemoth must bend its “ear” to the streets in order to better know the desires of potential consumers. To better understand the dynamics of crowds? Look no further than a Second Line parade or a jam session. To integrate innovation into business models or company culture? Look to the jazz musician soloing, improvising collectively, or in a small group. Hierarchical organizations in general – corporations, governments, and higher education institutions – pose particular challenges to progress and innovation, the blues and jazz studied as related processes offer insight into how and where to make necessary improvements. Through his writing, Murray projected an “image of man (and of human possibility) that is intrinsically revolutionary. Such an image… is automatically at radical odds with the status quo.” (Hero, 81)

Do Murray’s methods of combat belie the grittiness of the struggle for socio-economic justice? Hardly. Like the military man he was, Murray formulated strategy above the fray (an Air Force officer would) that would take care of us individually but that could serve the cause of socio-economic injustice globally.

My mentor Albert Murray will be memorialized tomorrow, September 10, 2013, at 1PM in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization built in large part on his intellectual framework. We do ourselves a great disservice if we think of Murray as a man who presented simple dichotomies such as – black v. white or “misery and social breakdown” v. “joyful and carefree.” Not only do we miss the breadth and depth of Murray’s thinking and reveal ourselves as poor students of culture with only a tangential understanding of his voluminous writings; we simplify the struggle for socio-economic justice and so become consumed with distractions at the margins of the debates. Honoring Albert Murray requires intellectual integration, moving our thinking from margin to center; being “incontestably mulatto.” After all, we are Omni-Americans.


Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

“Inbreeding presents real problems… [and it] isn’t just a problem for captive elephants” – it’s a problem for businesses and is an often-sited critique of jazz. Scott Anthony delves into his discussion of “innovation inbreeding” by using the example of Jackson, a Pittsburg area elephant who has sired so many calves in the US there is concern that the gene pool is homogenous and the species is at risk. Scientists want to create a sperm bank so as to diversify the gene pool in the creation of future calves. You see, whether in elephant sperm or in business, homogeneity (across sectors, within divisions, in the talent pool, etc.) is a bad thing. In business “inbreeding” occurs – when “innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company.” In jazz, so the critique goes, “inbreeding” takes the form of musical stagnation and institutionalization.

Inbred businesses

Businesses seeking to retain or initiate their presence in established or emerging markets face a problem of integration. People stick to what’s familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between the need for agility… and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning.” They flounder, sensing the need to do something different but are unsure about just what to do and how. Their angst, she notes, “leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.” Yet it is this very tension that encourages the innovation necessary for business success, especially in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Managers not accustomed to hybridity in the workplace “gene pool” develop symptoms of neurosis and are indicators of systemic damage or worse, financial extinction. They need cultural coping mechanisms.

Hybridity in business

In “Learning How To Grow Globally” Christopher Bingham and Jason Davis use a “Soloing vs. Seeding” analogy to illuminate the differences between homogeneity and hybridity. Soloing and seeding represent direct and indirect approaches to learning respectively. Businesses need both. The soloing arm tends to realize financial success faster; while seeding yields slower growth initially but performs better long-term. Blending these approaches to create a hybrid seed (see, we’re back to elephant sperm) would seem to strengthen the company overall while also maximizing the talent pool. Moreover, a combination approach allows both a full-scale unified effort as well as a small group concentrated effort, a nimble arm to meet specific demands. In botany as with elephant sperm, the cross-pollination of ideas creates hybrid seeds that are resilient; they are better able to handle shifts in the (financial) environment such as wind gusts (wild market swings), tsunamis (depressions and recessions), and earthquakes. Growing globally will require adaptability to changing conditions.

Stagnant Jazz?

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestraand its institutional home come under regular attack for being unimaginative and restricted in their programming – homogenous. Eric Porter’s, What is This Thing Called Jazz??, offers a thorough overview of various critiques noting, the organization and its music “became a lightening rod for conflict, stemming from the attempt to craft a jazz cannon, from personnel decisions made regarding the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and from personality conflicts between major players at Lincoln Center and the jazz press.” As the Artistic Director of the JLCO Wynton Marsalis has often been condemned for “cultural gatekeeping” and espousing the “ideologies of social and cultural conservatism and neoliberalism”; and likewise, his music has been critiqued for being dated.

The charges are not without merit. You see, when cultural osmosis (like cellular osmosis) is thorough, the entity loses its apparent “two-ness” and becomes a singular new entity. So, as the ensemble performs in its characteristic swing style; tightly woven instrumental sections move convincingly through the score with locomotive power, difference gives way to the riveting dynamics, and the steady rhythm suggests automation. However, we must remember, the score is likely to have been arranged specifically for the performance; meaning, it is already a departure from the original. Also, solos are always current on the night they are performed; they are not written down and so cannot be repeated verbatim from night to night. Innovation is inherent within these conditions and the response to changing conditions is reflexive.

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

Jackson’s efforts notwithstanding, the scientists in Pittsburg, businesses and jazz musicians know – hybridity is a good thing. Enduring long-term means coalescing disparate parts and making a whole, new thing. Call it what you will – cultural osmosis, hybridity, integration, diversity – when we are made to move beyond our comfort zones, we adapt, change and grow.

Collective Improvisation

The clip I’m attaching to this post is an example of collective improvisation (listen closely for this beginning at 2:45s); everyone is playing a different take on the melody at the same time – sonic hybridity.