Playtime: A jazz session at London Business School involving students and professional musicians © Charlie Bibby/FT
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A London Business School student takes his seat at a piano. Hands poised over the keys, he prepares to play with a professional jazz quartet. Except the student has never played piano in his life.

The one stipulation is that he can play only the black keys. Otherwise he can do whatever he wants while the other musicians improvise around him — and together they somehow make surprisingly pleasing music. The point is to encourage students to let go of being an expert and embrace the “beginner’s mind”.

The exercise is part of a two-hour jazz session designed to help business leaders learn from the skills and behaviours of jazz musicians, and forms part of LBS’s Leading Change programme, a five-day executive education course and one of several at different schools applying the arts to business.

The LBS course was founded six years ago to prepare executives to lead their businesses during uncertain times — something that was becoming a top priority for companies, according to Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour.

Three years in, Prof Cable felt the course needed to be more “personally immersive”, so he redesigned it around the “seeking system”, which he explores in his book, Alive at Work. The jazz session is designed to spark so-called triggers that re-engage curiosity and encourage creativity.

The jazz class comprises four practical exercises that demonstrate aspects of leadership, such as how to navigate complex situations through experimentation and how to understand the value of distributed leadership.

Alex Steele, a consultant, academic and the professional jazz pianist leading the session, says it helps students “become more mindful [and] reflective”. They can take away their new ideas and implement them in their teams, he adds.

Jazz is a good tool for encouraging the “beginner’s mind”, he says, because it breaks down habits and switches off the “autopilot way of thinking about things”. In one exercise four students are each allocated a musician in the band — which had never met before the session. When a student wants their musician to be the lead instrument, they put a hat on the player’s head. If they want their musician to play but not lead, they place a hand on their shoulder.

The exercise demonstrates how jazz tends to work in a non-hierarchical way. The students must communicate with each other using eye contact and body language. While all the hats can be on at the same time, by co-ordinating with one another they can create a more varied set while learning to understand how to take a step back as a leader, trusting someone else to take control.

Sam Kronja is director of finance and corporate services at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Perth, Australia, and took the course in March. The jazz session certainly wasn’t a “programme filler”, he says. Concepts from the class can be applied in Kronja’s work, because “I can walk into my next team meeting and describe what I saw and felt in such a way that they will be able to visualise and understand [them]”.

The jazz session also showed the wider benefits of experiential learning. “Do you learn more about London by reading about it, talking with others who have been there, or going there yourself?” Kronja asks.

Other schools also use practical arts activities to offer leadership insights. At Warwick Business School in the UK, students taking one executive MBA elective perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Students also write about and perform workplace dilemmas.

Spain’s Iese Business School offers a “Gaudí experience” on some executive education courses. Through a workshop and a tour round Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, the epic and still unfinished basilica designed by Antoni Gaudí, students consider how the architect persuaded people to build it and how the project has managed to continue over the past 100 years. Iese’s global EMBA also offers a jazz session where students work with musicians to come up with their own tune and perform it.

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Harry Davis, professor of creative management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has long been an advocate of experimentation and collaboration with artists. “It’s fundamental to my sense of what leadership is all about,” he says. Leadership is a “lived experience”, he believes, and developing mastery in it is a life-long undertaking.

The school has deployed the arts for both MBA and EMBA students in various ways, from visiting creatives — including a ballet dancer and an artist — to a pop-up choir. The choir was a one-off event last year that was open to all students at Chicago Booth. Organised by Prof Davis, Mollie Stone, a choral director and lecturer at the University of Chicago, and Patty Cuyler, co-director of Village Harmony, a community-choir organisation, the event involved 40 students, faculty, and staff who in three hours learnt to sing together and performed for a live audience.

Participating in the choir, says Prof Davis, “there is an enormous attention to ‘what does it mean to lead?’ and ‘what does it mean to follow?’. You have not only to listen to your own voice — you have to listen to your own section.”

A choir has four different parts — tenors, altos, sopranos and basses — but they are not silos, “as you might find in many organisations”, he adds. “We depend on one another, so every part is important. Also, the whole is incredibly important.”

Prof Davis argues that performing in a choir requires a person to use their whole body and all of their senses, which is critical in expressing an emotion — and that is “not unimportant for leadership”.

He stresses that it is more beneficial for students to work with artists, not just observe them. “We had an artist who was here for just three months. Students could see the output of what he did, but they didn’t get connected to the process,” says Prof Davis.

Yih-teen Lee, professor of managing people in organisations at Iese, has similar thoughts: he says the critical factor in the Gaudí experience is the visit to the basilica. This creates a unique experience that is intellectually stimulating and emotionally inspiring, so people can connect to the leadership lessons.

The use of the arts in management training has been growing, says Prof Davis, because “it’s essential in really helping leaders to grapple with some of the performance skills that they need”. After all, he says, “leadership is performance art”.

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