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  • Dr. Raz Yitzhaki

Choose 18 Maniacs - innovative Leadership & Teamwork Inspired by Jazz

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Why should we lead our innovative teams as jazz groups?

How to practice creative jam session strategies in our business?

What insights redefine the role of managers as conductors of creative teamwork?

Dr. Raz Yitzhaki - TEDx Technion 2019

Jazz? No, thanks

Whenever I meet new people and I tell them that I am a jazz musician, I usually get the same response. It’s comprised on two contradicting sentences & faces:

“Wow jazz! this is interesting”

That's the smily face. And then I get:

“But I don’t like jazz too much”

That’s the “please stay away from my playlist” face.

Many people flinch when they hear about jazz, literally fear it. I can actually understand them. Sometimes jazz can sound complicated, hard to understand, unpredictable.

But before you run away, let me show you what we can all learn from jazz about teamwork, leadership and innovation. I believe that jazz offers a surprising inspiration which is relevant


jazz musicians with different roles

Imagine a small stage in a dark jazz club, hosting a quartet. The club is packed, the atmosphere is hot, the band is playing with passion and the swing is burning.

These players are so creative and ambitious. They are eager to express themselves motivated by their desire to shine at their best. And, they want to create something new. Because Jazz, is all about innovation. You see, jazz musicians don’t re-produce music. They never want to repeat whatever they played last night, no matter how good the concert was.

Our musicians have different perspectives: The singer, trumpet player, pianist, bass player and drummer think differently, each having a different expertise - defined by their roles and their instruments:

Despite their differences, and possibly - thanks to their different points of view, they collaborate targeting a mutual goal: it’s another great jazz concert.

What's in it for my team?

How do they collaborate? And, why should we care? why is this important for us?

Team of experts

It is because, in many senses, innovative jazz groups resemble teams in other realms:

Everybody is talking about innovation these days, It has become the ever-growing focus of modern industries. Not just for High-Tech, but also for more traditional ones.

No matter the size of your organization, sitting around the table, we find small groups of innovative experts. R&D and product managers, account executives, P.R’s, Creative designers - you name it. Each industry and its own people.

Just like jazz musicians, they are expected to collaborate despite their different points of view. They also, want to play something new.

Leadership of Innovative Teamwork

Managing such teams of experts, is quite a challenge. The traditional role of mangers has been re-defined: Rather than bosses, innovative teams deserve innovative leaders.

How do you become one? how should you lead such a team?

In case you’re looking for inspiration, jazz offers plenty.

In the beginning there was Blues

It all started in the 19th century in New Orleans. Towards the end of the century a new style was born: the Blues.

They were simple songs expressing the everyday life. Some, are heart-breaking stories. The blues relies on a simple platform which allows flexibility: Every topic is possible. Simplicity means that everybody can sing blues. But most important: The Blues is about a personal gesture of expression; these were personal stories.

The Blues is important because it laid the musical and conceptual foundations from-which jazz will eventually emerge.

There is a great difference between the times when I play classical music or improvise the blues: When I play Mozart, I try to re-produce instructions of masterpieces composed by a genius, who lived faraway and long ago. But when I play the blues, I create my music on the spot; I play myself.

Jazz singer
Individual's self expression

Self expression

So, the blues address one of our basic needs: the need for self-expression. We all want to tell our story: we all want people to listen to us. We feel good when people listen to us; it shows us they care.

Self-expression is very important. But if it is important for you, it also important for your team members.

What do you do, when there are others, who want to express themselves as well?

New Orleans bands - teamwork expression

Around the same time of the birth of the blues, groups of musicians have started to form marching bands. They played on parades on the streets of New Orleans. They still do, up to date, on the Mardi Gras festival.

The traditional style of New Orleans is easy to recognize. There are three main instruments: The trumpet plays a rather loose interpretation of the melody. Squeaking above, there is a clarinet improvising a counter melody. Deep below, a trombone plays yet a different improvised melody.

Many melodic lines are played freely at the same time. All, are woven into a thick colorful braid. Imagine what happens on the festival parade when you might find more the 20 creative musicians playing at once.

Colors in Jazz Teams

This team-work enables them to express their own individual colors. These players improvise their parts. And while there is no definite leader - they march together in such harmony.

Talking about the Blues, we concentrated on the voice of an individual. Addressing a human need for self-expression. This personal voice is represented by this orange dot (see above picture).

Expression of individual's colors within team
Colorful team

But we’ve just witnessed a team work (even if not well organized), in-which members pay respect to the self-expression of their colleagues:

Not one spot, but a colorful bunch - walking hand in hand.

Every band, right? Think again...

It is far from a military band - marching “left right left right”. And I’d dare to say:

It is also far from a symphonic orchestra where the dominant color prevailing, is of the conductor

Traditionally, conductors interpret masterpieces composed by others, and direct the actions of the orchestra members.

I am not saying this is good or bad. It is just a different type of an organizational culture. One re-produces masterpieces, the other improvises and innovates.

Which is Your Business?

one color vr. multi color teams
Traditional vs. jazz team members' expression

Personal Color

expression of creativity in jazz teams

This idea, that each player is free to express their creativity – has always been a central essence in jazz. It is because innovation and every act of creativity are dependent on interactions. They are based on ideas-sharing of different visions.

Do you want creativity? Encourage your colorful players.

Order and Chaos in jazz teamwork

But If our players are free express their innovative creativity, how come jazz musician don’t’ fall into chaos? How does it work?

It works , because they know very well the path in-which they walk (they know the song; they know their job) . Everybody is self- aware of the agreed borders of their freedom, and they pay respect to the personal space of their partners.

This is the basis of our team-work. It is our job as managers - to cultivate such a culture in our dream-team.

Now, you might say:

“Early New Orleans marching bands sound un-organized, but our business is different. How can we manage creativity in our well-organized business? “

Well, let me introduce you to The Duke:

Ellington - Profound Leadership

Duke Ellington

As the years went by, jazz has dramatically changed. In 1927 Duke Ellington held one of the most desirable jobs in the music industry:

The musical director of the hottest club in NYC: The Cotton Club.

His music was the soundtrack for staged theatrical cabaret scenes. His role faced new demands: there are no more free spontaneous playing like we’ve seen before. Rather, this music must be tightly arranged in coordination with the scenes on the stage. This new business must be well organized.


Ellington sought musical innovations: exploring new sounds and harmony, producing exotic sensual music.

18 Maniacs

He formed an orchestra, but he was not looking for players. I mean not players as instrumental functions. Rather, he looked for creative personalities. And what personalities he found! No wonder he referred to them as 18 Maniacs.

Jazz orchestra, jazz band

He understood the importance of their self-expression. And so, he dedicated special space in his arrangements for the expression of their creativity. He composed music tailored to the measurements of each of them.

This personal approach embodied in his leadership was the reason that made so many musicians wanting to work with Ellington. With him, they sounded the best, they felt involved.

Bubber Miley

James Bubber Miley was a trumpet player collaborating with Duke was . He had a quite unique sound; in fact it was rather strange.


You all know the clean-round sound of a trumpet fanfare. But not Bubber: His sound was hoarse and rough, like a wailing of a strange animal in the jungle. It was far away from the common and expected within the boundaries of the traditions.

Such a bizarre sound is a disadvantage, Isn’t it?

Any normal band leader who would hear such sound, would have probably said:

"Don’t call us, go home, practice, come back to audition next year”.

Not Ellington: he was smart to take advantage of this weirdness and to use it to create the exotic sound he aspired to. Featuring un-orthodox approaches, such as Miley’s, enabled Ellington’s orchestra to sound unique - and this is exactly what he is looking for.

Strange, Unique, Advantage

For Duke, strange is unique, and this is an advantage.

Our tendency is to surround ourselves with people who think the same way we do. It is true in our personal lives as well as in our business. We tend to hire people who can adapt to our vision. It is much easier. Nobody to argue with us. We can have it our way. Our office meetings end in less than 10 mins.

But this is the easy way, not the creative way. Do you want creativity and innovation?

Surround yourselves with 18 maniacs.

Managers, who would you hire? A Yes-man or a maniac?

18 maniacs
18 maniacs

Ellington hired players who held visions which were different from the common, sometimes opposing his own. He knew that often, they were the key for innovative solutions.

Ellington does two things: He arranges the band: he sets the boundaries and framework for his colorful team members to collaborate. He also makes sure that this framework enables the creativity of outstanding players.

Ellington gave Miley a stage, because he realized that Miley could lead the orchestra to places that Ellington couldn’t.

Manager, sit at the piano

But this is not the only thing: When Miley is invited to lead, Ellington sits at the piano and accompanies him. As if he is saying: “Go ahead, fly high, I’m here for you”.

A leader truly supporting his team-member.

Managers, can sit at the piano?

How comfortable do you feel with this idea?

Innovation & Creativity

We tend to think about innovation as - us having to come up with a great idea. Sometimes, all we have to do, breakdown the hierarchy – go sit at the piano and let our players lead.

Ellington described it beautifully: Seconds before starting a concert at the Carnegie, Duke turned to the audience and said:

“The purpose of the concert is not to deliver my music, but is primarily to present our instrumentalists, in appreciation of the fact that they are the inspiration of all the things that are written… “
They are the inspiration

How many managers you know, can make such a statement when receiving the trophy?

Squares & Arrows - Leaders and Innovators

Two dominant roles in jazz culture, emerged around the 1930’s:

  1. Leaders, such as Ellington, have transcended composition, orchestration and arranging to a higher form of art. Without forgetting their need for:

  2. Fence breakers, who challenge the boundaries. Innovative creative improvisers, who had the inspiring ability to fly high with their imagination and talent.

Squares: leaders & Arrows: creative team-members
Squares: leaders & Arrows: creative team-members

We all need the other:

Leaders, setting the ground and infrastructure, need improvisers to ascend beyond these borders.

And improvisers, need open-minded leaders to set the conditions enabling their creativity.

Modern Innovative Leaders

It is the same for us:

Rather than bosses, managers of innovative teams, are expected to act as leaders. The same way jazz leaders act on the stage: Our role is not to give orders. We must create the conditions cultivating the personal potential, talent, imagination, innovation, creativity and even un-orthodox visions of our team members - and to harness them to the success of the organization.

It is possible, that our team-members hold the key for the innovative breakthrough we cannot even foresee .

Successful innovative companies, are rarely praised for the creativity of one manager, rather it is a teamwork effort. I’m sure it’s the same for you: there is a supporting team behind every cutting edge innovation.

Liverpool fans promise their soccer heroes: “You’ll never walk alone”.

Managers, let me promise you one sure thing: you actually never walk alone, you can’t. Simply because:

your success is dependent on the success of your team-members.

Successful teams and leaders

Jazz up your innovative teamwork

So, what are you waiting for? Your stage is set, your innovative team members are ready. It’s time to play.

Jazz stage

If you want me to personally speak in front of your teams (Live or via Zoom) and inspire them with more insight, feel free to contact me. I will be happy to creatively collaborate.

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