Artful Jazz and More Effective Community


Imagine artful jazz as a metaphor for more effective community.  Sound crazy?  This morning I read from a book by Dwight Zscheile.*  I invite you to read along with me and wonder.

Jazz offers a better metaphor.  Jazz is less about executing a predetermined script than it is about improvisation, whose Latin root improvises means “not seen ahead of time.”  Jazz is about learning while doing, embracing imperfection, trying things out, and pushing boundaries—but all within shared structures and patterns.  It is about collaboration and accompaniment, freedom and innovation.

Jazz is built on shared expectations and commonalities: the basic structure of a melody, rhythm, or song.  These minimal structures provide the groundwork for improvisation.  Jazz is fundamentally social, a collaborative effort among several musicians, and in so doing it creates space for a certain amount of autonomy and self-expression.  Jazz only works when the musicians engage in “generous listening”—“an unselfish openness to what the other is offering and a willingness to help others be as brilliant as possible.”  Accompanying, or “comping” for short in the language of jazz, is about sharing together in an emerging future:

Organizational members have to make room for one another, suspend efforts to manipulate and control outcomes, relinquish investment in predetermined plans, and often surrender familiar protocols.  To agree to comp, in other words, is to accept an invitation of openness and wonderment to what unfolds.

This happens in part through the cycle of shared solos, where each member of a jazz ensemble takes turns improvising on themes while supported by others. 

Such improvisations often breaks expectations through pushing boundaries and making mistakes.  Miles Davis once said, “If you are not making a mistake, it is a mistake.”  Barrett urges dual aesthetics of imperfection and forgiveness that are grounded in an underlying confidence in the group.  Control simply doesn’t work in jazz.  Jazz is about acting and paying attention to what unfolds, while being willing to “court disaster” by surrendering to the music and its possibilities, even as this takes the players to places that disrupt expectations.  This requires trust in one another and in the music that is emerging. 

The words Zscheile uses to connect the concepts of artful jazz with more effective community are too numerous for me to recap in this short post.  But I invite you to take another look and wonder with me.  Here are a few questions around what I’m thinking about…


  • What separates artful jazz from chaos? What separates artful community from chaos?
  • What are the “shared structures and patterns” of our community that inform how we might artfully (effectively) “accompany” one another?
  • How must we frame “mistakes” so that conscious experimentation around more effective community is given space for “imperfection”?
  • What are more effective jazz bands trusting their fellow musicians to bring to a performance? How is that trust built?  What are more effective communities trusting their fellow citizens to be bringing to the community experience?  How is that type of trust being noted and affirmed?


*Dwight J. Zscheile, The Agile Church, Morehouse Publishing, 2014 (pp 107, 108).

No Thanks…

No Thanks We Are Too Busy

Sometimes a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words.  I’ll let this one speak for itself.

Keep going my friends.

Reframing – Standing In a New Place

frame 1

I invite you back in time to my first year of Junior High School.  In those days the Junior High journey started with seventh grade.  Being a seventh grader was a lot like being in first grade.  It was a new location and a new way of doing the day.  There were lots of new faces and it was the first year of changing classes every hour.  In a very real sense, we were all starting again – socially and academically.

Come with me to math class – maybe 1/3 of the way through the school year.  It was a tough day for me.  A math concept (probably fractions) had me perplexed.  I just didn’t understand it.  Based on what I know of myself now I feel quite confident that I was outwardly agitated.  I probably raised my hand a lot and intoned my questions and comments with a bit of sharpness.  I felt stupid and I didn’t know what to do with that.

Although I don’t remember every detail of our interaction I do remember one.  At a particular moment, in front of the class, when the tension was extra high, my teacher (I still remember her name) looked at me and declared out loud…

“You are either not listening or you are stupid!”


Now, did I deserve that?  Actually, my math teacher might have said yes.  Me? Not so much.

Now, whatever you and I think about the nuances of that interaction I want to invite you to join me in wondering about this moment with me.  In the effort of full disclosure I want to make clear that since that day – and particularly as an adult – I have found myself countless times in the place of my math teacher.  Having someone in front of me that (I believe) just doesn’t get it.  I just want to call them “stupid” or “not listening” and be done with them.

So what am I to do at that moment?

A tool that has helped me in recent days is that of “reframing”.  It’s particularly helpful when the leadership work required is adaptive/generative.*  Generally speaking reframing invites us to be awake to where we are standing to view a given situation and consciously wonder about what it might look like to stand somewhere else.

So, in the case of my math teacher, my guess is that her frame was informed largely by a touchy 7th grade boy who didn’t get a simple math concept and was responding in ways that were (quite possibly) challenging her skill and authority in a room filled with other seventh graders.  How dare he behave this way.  I will make him pay.  And, she did.

So, what might a reframe look like?

Reframing is always helped by more thoughtful questions.  Questions like:  What if my teacher had wondered more about what she didn’t know about this situation than what she felt she did?  What if the focus was less about responding to her feelings and more about wondering where this frustration was coming from (hers and mine)?  What if this moment really wasn’t about math?  What if this moment was about a young boy who actually DID feel stupid in front of his peers didn’t have the tools to know how to handle that?  How might those questions alone have invited my teacher to stand at a new place as she assessed what was needed at that moment with me and the class?

Again, lest I come off as a bitter adult who was emotionally bruised by his seventh grade math teacher, let me clarify.  I have, multiple times, been my seventh grade teacher in moments like these.  The question I’m offering us today isn’t about blame…it’s about what each of us do when we are standing where my teacher stood.  God knows, given enough time, all of us will stand there?

Personally, honing the skill of reframing has helped me here.  Let me offer some ideas that have gotten me started on honing that skill.

  1. Reframing starts with acknowledging my emotions and (at the same moment) work around them.

Showing up more effectively starts with realizing where we are emotionally and acknowledging our feelings.  Your feelings are important.  They are telling you something.  But they shouldn’t be the only voice that informs how we respond – in particularly when the challenges we are facing are adaptive.*

Do you feel angry?  Do you feel frustrated?  Do you feel attacked?  Acknowledge that to yourself.  This is you.  This informs where you are at right now.

  1. Reframing requires a clear sense of my affirmed values and purpose.

The next step is to take hold of your feelings and set them to the side for a moment.  Don’t get rid of them or deny them.  Just set them to the side.  Now, as you stand with them, clarify your purpose in that moment.

Is your purpose to:                                       be right?

look important or smart?

invite others to wonder with you?


something else?

A critical piece of reframing effectively is to clarify your purpose and then inform and hold your feelings accountable to responding more appropriately based on that affirmed purpose.

As a parent, when my child frustrates me, is my purpose to show them who is boss?  OR is my purpose to invite/challenge them to mature in their behavior?  Hey, there may be times when the purpose may legitimately be to clarify who’s boss.  I get it.  But that’s my decision (as parent) to make.  But remember, if that’s the only message that informs how I show up at every moment as a parent, that frame is going to impact my effectiveness.  And my child and I will both be impacted by that limited frame over the long haul.

Here’s an insight.  We can be totally frustrated and still be effective in not letting our feelings control us in a given moment.  Yes – it’s true.  But it’s really hard and it takes learning, focus and practice.  It begins with acknowledging our feelings and holding those feelings accountable to our clarified purpose.

There is so much more that we could say about reframing but I offer you the preceding as a starting point.  Wherever you stand on this I invite you to wonder more about your “go-to” frames these days.

How are your current frames helping you (and those around you) to make progress?

How are they affirming your values and purpose?

Where might you experiment with standing in a different frame?

Who might you trust enough to have a hard conversation about frames they see you using that you may not be awake to?

One more thing.  To my seventh grade math teacher.  I get it.  I was probably being a jerk.  I probably needed an attitude adjustment.  God knows, you may have been having a tough day yourself.  What if you were?  What if I just happened to be the one giving you grief when you just didn’t need any more?  What if there were things going on in your life (that were none of my business) that had you on your edge?  I wonder how that reframe might have helped me…and you.  I invite you to join me in wondering about all of it.  Not to be right…but to be more effective the next time…and the next…and the next…


* When a patient comes to a surgeon, the surgeon’s default setting is to say, you’ve got a problem, I’ll take the problem off your shoulders and I’ll deliver back to you a solution [technical work]. In psychiatry, when a person comes to you with a problem, it’s not your job actually to solve their problem. It’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem [ADAPTIVE work].  Ron Heifetz.  Brackets added.


What Am I Really Teaching?


For years I have adopted the worldview that how I do something is as important as what I do.  I’m not saying that I always get it right – I’m just saying that this idea stirs something within me.  Today I read something from Parker Palmer* that provided some more stirring around this issue.

I offer it to you.

If you want to understand our controlling conception of knowledge, do not ask for our best epistemological** theories.  Instead, observe the way we teach and look for the theory of knowledge implicit in those practices.

The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learned.  A teacher, not some theory, is the living link in the epistemological chain.  The way a teacher plays the mediator role conveys both an epistemology and an ethic to the student, both an approach to knowing and an approach to living.  I may teach the rhetoric of freedom, but if I teach it “ex cathedra”, asking my students to rely solely on the authority of “the facts” and demanding that they imitate authority on their papers and exams, I am teaching a slave ethic.  I am forming students who know neither how to learn in freedom nor how to live freely, guided by an inner sense of truth.

If this is the case, then as a teacher I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be.  Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulate pressure on my students’’ sense of self and world.  I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills.  I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world.  That way, reinforced in course after course, will remain with my students long after the facts have faded from their minds. 

When I read this I had an “oh wow” moment.  Not because it was new to me but because it so clearly articulated.  This is something that I deeply believe.  How I do something is as important as what I am doing – especially when it comes to how I engage others.

My teaching methodology invites a learning all by itself – a learning of culture – of worldview.  That culture/worldview invites students to view the facts of my teaching through a specific lens.

I so resonate with Palmers example around freedom.  If I teach about freedom with an attitude of seeing myself as the final authority I subliminally teach that my way is the only way…which informs what I really believe about freedom.  Namely, that you are free to believe what you wish as long as you agree with me.

This was the tone of my early faith.  It is something that I have been in the process of unlearning for decades.

But this principle is a lot bigger than me.  I see this everywhere.

I speak with organizational leaders, on a regular basis, that are constantly amazed that even though they tell their employees that they are encouraged to “think creatively” – they don’t.  They blame it on the “millennials” or “poor upbringing.”  Which may be at play.  But these same leaders are largely clueless as to how they are a part of the problem.  Namely, the “how” of their teaching does not correspond with the “what” of their message.  They say they want everyone’s best ideas, but only the ideas that support the view of the leader are deemed worthy.  All others are considered bad and belittled.

Rather than continue with a series of proclamations on the gap between what we say we want and how we behave I’ll simply close with a few questions for thought.

  • In what ways am I convinced that I’m helping others to learn and yet unintentionally (or intentionally) sabotaging their learning by my poor or inconsistent teaching methodology?
  • In what ways am I allowing my good intentions around a certain matter to keep me from evaluating my effectiveness in it?
  • How might I sit more curiously with an issue that I’m struggling with right now with this thought in mind?


To Know As We are Known/A Spirituality of Education, Parker J. Palmer.  Harper and Row, 1983.  PP. 29-30.

**Epistemology – the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion (Google dictionary).

Showing the Way


I recently decided to revisit some books on my shelf that impacted me years ago.  One of those was Donald Millers “Blue Like Jazz” .  I knew I had made the right choice when I read the Author’s Note prior to page one.

Miller writes…

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve.  But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone.  I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.  It is as if they are showing you the way.

When I read that I thought, “What a great quote.”

Then I thought, “I wonder what others are being invited to love by my example?


Leadership and the Human Condition: An Unlikely Source of Insight on a Holy Day

journal cover-crop

What a strange place to find meaning on Ash Wednesday.

Today started the way most workdays do – taking in some insights from a vocational journal or book.  But on this day (Ash Wednesday) I was surprised when my vocational reading became holy for me.  Let me explain.

In the most recent issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC), writer Chris Green offers an opening assessment on the challenge around the topic of Gun violence in our society.  The bulk of the article centers around insights derived from the input KLC received around a survey done last year on the topic.  The goal was not to choose a side or fix the issue.  Instead, Green invited us to be awake to the “Barriers” that keep us from making progress – any progress.

As I neared the end of the article I was struck with his choice of words and how they resonated with me – in particular on this day — Ash Wednesday.  Although I’m relatively sure he didn’t intend for his writing to be seen as devotional or spiritual…well…read it for yourself.

All too often, it’s easier to expect other people to behave better than we’re willing to act ourselves.

We want others to be fair, trustworthy, unbiased and objective.  But it’s human nature to see the confirmation of what we already believe in trying to analyze the factual basis of a story, poll or research paper.  We spot others’ blind spots and fallibility far easier than we do our own.

The flaws that keep humans from being able to reason well shouldn’t stop people from entering into vigorous discussion.  But they are the reason to enter each interaction with humility and a willingness to extend grace.  So much of the dialogue that takes place in society on social media and elsewhere these days isn’t dialogue at all.  It’s score settling.  It’s a world of owning, getting owned and owning one’s self.  But how do you know if you’re learning anything?  How do you know if you’re gaining knowledge that will help you make the world of possibilities you see in your mind edge closer to reality?  

The world of human interaction is a messy place.  We should allow ourselves and others to be wrong, to make mistakes and to change our minds.  We should be forgiving when other people stumble or anger us.  Ask them to be forgiving of our own shortcomings, and own shoddy thinking or contradictory ideas.  Because the truth is:  We all mess up a bunch of the time.*



*Chris Green, The Journal, Winter 2019, p. 11

That’s It! Helping Your Team Get Energy in the Right Direction


“Why can’t people just do what I tell them?”

“Why don’t people just do what they should?  It’s not that hard.

The gap that often lies between how our employee or team are currently performing and where we would like for them to perform can feel ever present and often enormous.   No doubt, there are a host of things that are a part of this frustration.  But one of the issues that I often find present is the lack of clarity around what the win looks like.  Let me be clear – it is the work of the authority (supervisor) in any system to clarify what a win looks like.  I’m talking about the baseline – the starting place – the non-negotiables of what it means to effectively be about the work.  If not spelled out, we should not expect our employees to know what that is.  Yet, time after time, I find that when I ask those in authority about this I get a blank stare.

Communicating the win starts with clarified values and mission but it’s more than that.  It’s about the cultural non-negotiables.  The clearer the Authority can be on what the non-negotiables are the more the employee/s have the latitude to think creatively about how to accomplish them.  But if those non-negotiables are foggy expect there to be frustration for you – and them.

Stephen Covey tells a story about engaging his son in taking responsibility for the work of taking care of the family lawn.  As they began their work together Covey constantly reiterates with his son what a win looks like.  Green and Clean.  This was the baseline.  If the yard continues to make progress toward Green and Clean then we were going in the right direction.  This story is laced with some comical bumps along their journey toward progress but always with the clearly articulated focus on Green and Clean.  This was critical.

Once the authority has clearly articulated the baseline of what a win looks like it is incumbent that they keep the focus there.  Specifically – they must continue to reinforce when an employee’s efforts connect with the win.  It can be seductive to only point out when and employee misses the mark.  And, no doubt, there are times when clear feedback needs to come in order to provide protection, direction and order.  But once a baseline is given the goal must always be to move beyond it.  This requires a different kind of work – a work nuanced by a focus on leveraging and engaging strengths.  Why?  Because focusing on strengths not only brings encouragement to your team – it brings learning.

Consider the following excerpt from an article entitled The Feedback Fallacy in the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review…

There’s a story about how legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry turned around his struggling team.  While the other teams were reviewing missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry instead combed through footage of previous games and created for each player a highlight reel of when he had done something easily, naturally, and effectively.  Landry reasoned that while the number of wrong ways to do something was infinite, the number of right ways, for any particular player, was not.  It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that person had done it excellently.  From now on, he told each team member, “we only replay your winning plays.”

Now on one level he was doing this to make his team members feel better about themselves because he knew the power of praise.  But according to the story, Landry wasn’t nearly as interested in praise as he was in learning.  His instincts told him that each person would improve his performance most if he could see, in slow motion, what his own personal version of excellence looked like.   

Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it.  By helping your team member recognize what excellence looks like for her – by saying, “That!  Yes, that!” – you’re offering her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there within her so that she can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it.  That is learning.”*

There is so much more that is a part of the systemic work of creating a high functioning employee/team.  I want to clarify that I am not implying that this work is easy or obvious.  But I am struck by how many times I find these pieces not only missing – but not thought about.  I would certainly offer this as a starting point for every CEO, VP, Manager or Supervisor.

This is your work.


*The Feedback Fallacy, Buckingham & Goodall, (HBR) Harvard Business Review, March/April 2019, pp. 98-100.

Samantha – The Power of a Compelling Why



Today, I made my weekly pilgrimage to the television set to watch one of my favorite shows, CBS Sunday Morning.  As usual, there was a moment in the ninety minutes that spoke to me.  It wasn’t one of the headline stories.  It was a much shorter story about what might be considered a small issue in a small community.

At the far end of Islington Road in Newton, Mass lives two year old Samantha Savitz.  She is deaf.  And for whatever reason, her community has decided that not being able to communicate with her, as she takes walks around the community with her parents, is not okay.  So, with the help of a hired instructor, a group of community members has decided to learn how to speak in sign language.  Yep – as a group – they are gathering in someone’s home, on their own time, to be tutored by a sign language teacher just so they can talk with Samantha.*

This story spoke deeply to me – and not just because it is a sweet story…which it is.

To me, this affirms something that I am continuing to become convinced of in my work with communities and organizations.  Unless there is not only a clear “why”, but a compelling “why” I just don’t see why anyone would waste their time and energy by giving their best selves and efforts to a company or community in order to help it move forward.

Generally speaking, just getting paid is not enough to get the best out of employees.

Generally speaking, just believing that your community should be a great place to live is not enough to get the best out its community members.

Generally speaking, just believing that people should love God is not enough to fill the pews each Sunday.

In my opinion, there’s got to be a why – and not just a clear why – a compelling why in order to really make progress.

But getting clear on purpose (be it individual or institutional) is hard.  Getting to the compelling part of purpose is even harder.  Why?  Here are just a couple of ideas…

First, none of us have time to think about deep purpose.  We just need someone to make the widgets.  We need someone to mow their lawn.  We need someone to volunteer in the Sunday School nursery.

Next, many of us have just not been schooled in thinking about deep meaning.  We pride ourselves in being “can-do” people.  Just get the job done and suck it up.

Simon Sinek says, “People don’t care what you do, they care why you do it.”  Whatever you think about that quote I (personally) think there is some truth to it.  The “why” of a matter…what I would call “purpose”… invites all of us to think more deeply about the things that really matter to us – and until things really matter I just don’t see how we’re going to be able to make progress around the stories we hunger to be told about us.

*Here is the link to the video:

The CEO clarifies the WHY…always.


In Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why he states that when companies grow the role of the founder changes.  No matter what their new job description it remains the role of the CEO to clarify the “WHY” of their company’s existence.  Unfortunately, this work often gets lost in the shuffle.

Everything an organization says and does communicates the leader’s vision to the outside world.  All the products and services that the company sells.  All the marketing and all the advertising.  They all work to communicate this to the outside world.  If people don’t buy “what” you do they buy “why” you do it and if all the things happening at the “what” level do not clearly represent “why” the company exists then the ability to inspire is severely complicated. 

When a company is small this is not an issue because the founder has plenty of direct contact with the outside world.  Trusted “how” types may be in short supply and the founder ops to make a majority of the big decisions him or herself.  The founder or leader actually goes out and talks to the customers, sells the product and hires most if not all new employees. 

As the company grows, however, systems and processes are added and other people will join.  The cause embodied by an individual slowly morphs into a structured organization and the cone starts to take shape.  As it grows the leader’s role changes.  He will no longer be the loudest part of the megaphone.  He will become the source of the message that is to flow through the megaphone. 

When a company is small it will revolve around the personality of the founder.  There is no debate that the founder’s personality is the personality of the company.  Why then do we think things change just because a company is successful?  What’s the difference between Steve Jobs the man and Apple the company?  Nothing.  What’s the difference between Sir Richard Branson’s personality and Virgin’s personality?  Nothing. 

As a company grows the CEO’s job is to personify the “why”.  To ooze of it.  The talk about it.  To preach it.  To be a symbol of what the company believes.  They are the intention and what the company says and does is their voice.  Like Martin Luther King and his social movement the leader’s job is no longer to close all the deals.  It is to inspire.*

*Excerpt from Chapter 9 of “Start With Why”. Simon Sinek.

Baptism by Coffee – How a little spill can change our perspective

Coffee book

This morning I was enjoying a new book.  Not just any book.  It’s about adaptive leadership…one of my favorite topics.  It even has a personal note and signature to me from the author…a person I know and respect.  In a very real sense…this is a book above books for me.  Lots of positive meaning was connected with it that made its worth more than the topic of its pages.

So…I had picked up my reading this morning from where I left off yesterday…about the half way point of the book.  With reading glasses on and hot coffee sitting next to me I was already reengaged in the thoughts of how the principles applied to my life and situations around me.  It was good stuff.

And then it happened.  Reaching to pick up my coffee cup while reading I clumsily failed to lift the cup clear of the book and spilled coffee all over my bright new, shiny, signed book.

True confessions, my initial thoughts (and words) were not appropriate for printing here.  I quickly reached for a towel to mop up the mess and try to clean off the pages.  Disgusted in myself for being so clumsy I thought – how could I be so clumsy.

And then it hit me.

This is perfect.

No – really.  It’s perfect.

This written report – this prized possession – this thing that I viewed as so prized, so special, so valued – this thing that was so pristine and shiny had finally been knocked from its place of trophy status to a much more meaningful spot.  The place of field manual.  In a very real sense – this desecration by coffee was one of the best things that could happen to this polished report.

As I moved from aggravation to laughter (and I did) I found myself much less encumbered by a need to somehow hold this book with a sense of holiness.  It was now ready to take its place in the work it was intended – as a source of curiosity amidst the challenges of real life (and clumsy coffee spills).

I now find myself wondering what other shiny objects of my life could be helped by a little strategic baptism by coffee.

I invite you to join me in considering what might be helped by your own strategic coffee spill.  What might a slip of the coffee bearing wrist do to aid you in viewing your own catalog of shiny theories and plans with new eyes.  Maybe together, we can find ourselves less worried about the report itself and a bit more interested in wresting and experimenting with its application.