Jazz of Leadership Part One: What Dr. Jazz Taught 30 Doctors

By Ken Perlman

Thirty doctors walk into a Jazz session. Although it sounds like the setup line to a bad joke, it’s actually what happened in one of the most remarkable discussions of leadership I’ve ever seen. 
This evening’s leadership conversation was a joint effort between USC Thornton School of Music professor Ronald McCurdy, Ph.D. (we will occasionally call him “Dr. Jazz”) and USC Marshall School of Business professor Dave Logan, Ph.D. (we will call him “Dr. Logan”)*.  For years, these two have conducted a classroom conversation about leadership using the live dynamics of an improvisational jazz quartet as the centerpiece.

Here is the setting:  It’s 6:00 PM. We are in the basement case room at the USC Marshall School of Business. In the seats are approximately thirty doctors from around the world. They are continuing their education in the Masters of Medical Management Program and have come from a full day statistics class.  Where the professor would usually stand and lecture, there are four musicians:  Dr. Jazz on trumpet, Ivan on drums, Chelsea on bass, and Brandon on keyboard. 
Over the next hour, Dr. Jazz and Dr. Logan lead a conversation about leadership, followership, communication, culture, and innovation.  Each key point is drawn from the interplay of the performers, or demonstrated by their performance.  For example, they mapped the Tribal Leadership Stages to the performance:

  • Stage 1 (Life sucks) – they would never actually form a band to be able to perform.
  • Stage 2 (My life sucks) – each player playing it totally safe, no life, no innovation, all “butter notes” – and it sounded boring and awful.
  • Stage 3 (I’m great, you’re not) –a competition among players with each jockeying for position – and it sounded disconnected.
  • Stage 4 (We’re great) – sounded great, each player working with one another, taking turns, making ‘space.’ Smooth, and at the same time, exciting as each player got to shine.
  • Stage 5 (Life’s great) – although the band didn’t quite get there in their playing, it was fascinating that the whole group got through the conversation.

The last sentence of the evening lesson is the capstone for the entire program. Dr. McCurdy paraphrases an African saying that sums it up well: If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together. The thirty physicians know, even better now, that we need to go pretty far in healthcare, so we better figure out a way to all play together. 

*Note: Even though Dave Logan is a cool person, and a good friend, when compared to Dr. McCurdy, there is a ‘cool gap’, hence no nickname.

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