Trumpeter Miles Davis is heralded as one the most influential jazz musicians ever, helping to drive forward major evolutions in the genre. While he has inspired scores of jazz musicians over the decades, a different audience can also learn a lot from him: business executives.

At a recent session in the Executive Education program Developing Yourself as a Leader—Virtual, organizational behavior expert Frank Barrett encouraged executives to embrace Davis's mindset, reducing their reliance on the tried-and-true in the effort to allow for new ideas and approaches. Davis recognized the importance of breaking patterns and habits, once stating, "If it sounds clean and slick, I've been doing it too long."

Like jazz musicians, executives need to step out of their comfort zone, said Barrett, speaking to over 100 executives from the HBS Live Online Classroom. This state-of-the-art studio is designed to make virtual participants feel like they are in a real HBS classroom, thanks to a wall of life-sized screens, personal cameras for each screen, a team of off-camera engineers—and for this special session, a grand piano.

An accomplished musician as well as a professor of management and global public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., Barrett was invited to speak to program participants by faculty chair Ethan Bernstein. While a session on jazz improvisation may seem out of the ordinary for an Executive Education program, Barrett's guest appearance is an example of the many ways that HBS faculty incorporate program elements that prompt executives to think about business and their role as leaders in a new way.

Organizational behavior expert Frank Barrett plays the piano

With colorful stories of jazz greats like Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Oscar Peterson, Barrett convincingly made the case that jazz musicians and business executives face many of the same challenges. Jazz musicians live in a high-velocity environment. There's lots of information going by very quickly and you have to take action. Not only that, but you have to take that action in public, on the stage. This means you need to choose an informational thread and make a public commitment to it, with no guarantee that what you're doing is the right thing," he said. "The very best jazz is right on the verge of falling apart—where everybody is on the edge of their competence and just trying to make the best of whatever situation they're in."

Sound familiar? Barrett explained that business executives can keep their careers moving forward, expand their leadership potential, and support a culture of innovation by adopting some key principles of jazz improvisation. In addition to unlearning habits that lead to stale strategies—the same old song—executives should:

  • Develop an appreciative mindset and be willing to jump in fully to something new even if it's intimidating. Like a jazz musician, recognize you have the foundational skills to make anything thrown at you work.
  • Remove structures to maximize autonomy. Guided only by chords and the primary melody, jazz shows that amazing things can happen when you knock down constraints and give people the freedom to experiment and test ideas.
  • Embrace risk and errors. Whether it's a new strategy or a new chord progression, failure can be a source of learning and discovery.
  • Create opportunities for "jam sessions"—informal interactions that can yield accidental discoveries and important incidental learning.
  • Recognize that sometimes you're the soloist, and at other times your role is to support your peers as they take center stage.

"With jazz," said Barrett, "breakthrough innovation is always right around the corner." For more information on how you can apply the experience of master jazz improvisers to your own leadership journey, check out Barrett's book, Yes to the Mess, Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.

Check out how the team moved this beautiful piano into the Live Online Classroom.

About the Author

Anita Mushlin is the Assistant Director of Content Marketing for Harvard Business School, Executive Education.