Leadership and the Quest for Perfection: A Cautionary Tale
As a facilitator, speaker, coach, educator, and professional sax player, I frequently draw inspiration from the musicians and artists who have influenced me over the years. One of these artists, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, once said, “Humans are imperfect. That’s one of the reasons that classical and jazz [music] are in trouble. We’re on the quest for the perfect performance and every note has to be right. Man, every note is not right in life.”
It’s one of my favorite quotes because it succinctly connects the world of music to the human experience in a profound way. I’ve been a musician for most of my life and a management consultant for about 15 years. I’ve played in scores of bands and worked with thousands of leaders, managers and supervisors. I’ve taught organizational behavior, interpersonal communication, and persuasion at the university level. Through it all, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the one Branford so eloquently articulates: perfection is an elusive concept—and the quest for it can be counterproductive.
As any kid learning an instrument can tell you, those early months and years are tough (unless you’re a prodigy, which I wasn’t). Even getting a decent tone out of my horn took weeks (much to the chagrin of my parents). Once I could achieve a sound that didn’t resemble a goat in pain, I had to learn scales, starting with the 12 major scales and proceeding through the minor scales, the blues scales, and many others. Notes, scales and chords are the foundation of music; you can’t expect to say anything worthwhile until you can “speak” proficiently. Few things are as tedious as practicing scales for hours but that is what’s required to progress to the next level.
I remember my music teachers insisting I play each scale “perfectly.” That meant playing the scale in time, with good tone, speed, and no missed fingerings. Right up and right down, no mistakes. I understood why my teachers were adamant. Playing scales improperly is like reciting the alphabet “A, B, G, E, X, D…” There is no middle ground with scales—they’re either played properly or they’re not. But in 7th grade, my whole musical world—indeed, the entire way I thought about playing music —was turned upside down with one recording.
That recording was the Thelonius Monk jazz classic “Straight, No Chaser,” performed by Miles Davis and his band. I listened to this exuberant piece enthralled—I literally had never heard anything like it before. This music wasn’t about perfection at all! It was about rhythm, melody, harmony, and swing, the pulsing heartbeat of jazz. In the context of this improvised music, I didn’t even know what “perfection” meant. In jazz, I quickly learned, perfection takes a back seat to individual creative expression—which can be awfully messy at times—and that’s OK. So began my decades-long love affair with this singularly American art form.
I’ve spent thousands of hours on stage since then and not once have I played a perfect performance. There have been forgotten passages, botched notes, out-of-tune phrases, missed entrances, and countless squeaks and squawks out of my horn. Of course, I don’t strive for imperfection; it’s just that I’m fine with it when it occurs. I’ve learned to navigate those inevitable awkward moments with grace and good humor. What’s the alternative? Quit playing in the middle of a song? Slap my forehead in disgust? Walk off stage with my head held low? As they say in the entertainment field, the show must go on!
That’s what Branford means when he says the quest for the perfect performance is threatening to strangle the life out of classical and jazz music. When the drive for perfection supersedes all else, the music suffers. It becomes rigid, stiff, and laborious. It loses its playfulness and fluidity. It ossifies. Leadership works the same way. Sure, there is no shortage of theories to explain and predict human behavior. As a professor of organizational behavior, I’m familiar with most of them. They’re important. But, as Branford points out, humans are imperfect. They make errors in judgment. They make irrational decisions. As leaders, we need to recognize and accept that sometimes people’s behavior won’t conform to expectations—not every “note” they play will be right.
The way leaders deal with employees who play the occasional “wrong note” makes a huge difference in the overall health of a company’s culture. When people are afraid that slip-ups will incur the wrath of leadership, they take care not to “rock the boat.” Creativity, morale, and collaboration suffer as employees slog through the workday devoid of energy and enthusiasm. Years ago, I worked for a huge, massively successful company that prided itself on its values and culture. However, I always felt that if I played a “wrong note” there would be serious repercussions. I know others felt the same way. All the talk about innovative thinking and “putting our people first” meant little when leaders excoriated employees for coloring outside the lines.
This is not to say that poor performance or mistakes should be ignored. However, I believe it’s far more constructive to look for ways to turn “wrong notes” into learning opportunities. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” In jazz as in leadership, it’s often the “wrong notes” that lead to the greatest insights.
Share This Article:
About Michael Brenner
As president of Right Chord Leadership, Michael helps both new and experienced leaders, managers, and supervisors strengthen the essential people skills needed to foster great performance. He achieves this by drawing on the lessons he’s learned as a business consultant, facilitator, and educator for more than 14 years and as a professional musician for over…