Digital Leadership – Classic Orchestra and Jazz Combo under One Roof

Wednesday, 29. May 2019

A guest article by Prof. Dr. Thorn Kring


Leadership within the digital transformation is multi-facetted. The claim for a more agile mindset of leaders is frequently uttered – and often even justly. The Great Man at the point of mostly hierarchical leadership systems is to be replaced by leaders who understand themselves as system architects keeping upstage and empowering employees with a corporate mindset by strengthening relationships.

Change is needed. So pointed and precise calls for new leadership ideas are quite justified. However, there are still functional divisions and fields of activity in a complex and dynamically changing corporate sphere, where an agile kind of approach on leadership doesn’t appear to be expedient. Seldomly are areas juxtaposed of which one part is directed towards innovation, encouragement to experiment and openness to adjustment, and the other part sticks to strict rules and regulations as well as zero-defect tolerance.

Between Classic Orchestra and Jazz Combo

Between Classic Orchestra and Jazz ComboThere are some business units functioning like a classic orchestra. Others, however, are more like a jazz combo. Orchestral structures seem to be more promising whenever there are clear processes involved and rather little scope for interpretation respectively few degrees of freedom left: A defined hierarchy and processes planned into detail can be compared to a complicated score and the maestro intervening relentlessly in order to reach perfection of the arrangement.

Plant engineering in the chemical industry, risk management of banks or even pit stops in the Formula 1 are examples of this. Zero-defect tolerance is necessary, regulatory requirements or demands for a quality promise don’t leave many degrees of freedom for self-organization. Instead, authoritarian directives in leadership as well as technologically driven quality management are what leads the way towards a goal.

Other areas under the same corporate roof will however only generate their share of success when left alone to innovate and develop in a customer-oriented way. Just as in a jazz combo, fewer leaders are required rather than a shared understanding of what principles to follow in making music together. Based on this system of harmonies and rules, one leaves room to improvise to each other. Leadership is allowed to jump from player to player, and surprising sounds aren’t deemed mistakes but as offers to develop the total artwork further.

While business models in traditional plant engineering need transformation, digital customer interfaces in banking need further development. If you want to make cross-sectoral cooperation fit for the future, leaders should rather follow the jazz combo system than the orchestra model.

Digital Leadership – a Challenging Kind of Ambidexterity

Digital Leadership und die Herausforderung der AmbidextrieFor the management of an enterprise, this kind of ambidexterity of systems is connected to special challenges. From a strategical point of view, a co-existence is apparently necessary and appropriate. This means that a clear idea has to be developed what kind of leadership principle needs to be applied to each of the different business units. Agility isn’t the answer to any entrepreneurial challenge and does not add value to any leadership situation. Experience shows that employees, as specialists in their scope of responsibilities, have developed a good feel as to how “good leadership” in their field could look like. Through dialogue tools and collaborative processes, digitally supported by a feasible IT infrastructure, participative processes for the assessment of organization and leadership can be made transparent. Employees become contributors. The management gets the impulses they need to identify who would rather like to be an orchestra musician or a jazzer, and thus can adjust the way how single leadership systems are composed.

But not only the design and adjustment of systems is significant. No matter if striving for efficiency and precision or the joy of experimenting and being innovative is at the center: Both leadership systems can only be implemented and filled with life with the right people. Leaders’ and employees’ skills are key. Neither an orchestra nor a jazz combo can play delightful music when their members don’t have appropriate instrumental proficiency. Without the right individuals in the right places and without constantly promoting their competences, neither of the leadership system will be able to fully flourish. Professional competence management for employees as well as leaders is therefore obviously a must.

Erfolgreiche Führung braucht mitunter beide SystemeLooked upon from current angles, finally, the co-existence of orchestra and jazz combo under one corporate roof remains a very special task for managers. They need to minimize the risk for any uncontrolled “cacophony”. Mutual respect for the contributions to value of the other functional areas has to be developed and reciprocal prejudices about “hip weirdos burning money all the time” or “old-fashioned blockers” have to be avoided. At times, successful leadership needs both systems. A dialogue for a mutual understanding as well as creating transparency of the activities of the respective other corporate areas will help enterprises on this way. Digital, collaborative platforms offer an eligible basis in order to map both leadership systems and to support them.


Credits (from top):
© istock.com I lchumpitaz
© istock.com | LightFieldStudios
© istock.com | ipopba
© istock.com | Vasyl Dolmatov
© Prof. Dr. Thorn Kring



About the Author

Prof. Dr. Thorn KringProf. Dr. Thorn Kring is leader of Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Human Resources Management at Steinbeis University Berlin. The institute’s key areas are ethics in business and leadership, employee management and human resources management. He is involved in several research projects in the context of digital transformation and its impact an leadership. His focus are companies as learning organizations, the analysis and design of learning processes on company and employee level.

As academic Leader of zeb Business School at Steinbeis University Berlin he and his team transfer their research results and leverage these insights to design modern digital learning architectures for their bachelor and master programs. As Senior Advisor Human Capital Management, Development and Corporate Learning at EVOLUTINOIZER GmbH he is engaged in issues concerning human resource management in times of digital transformation..