Grace & Truth in Leadership

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The Balance of Grace and Truth in Leadership

The breathless melodies are intoxicating for the listener engaging in response to Keith Jarrett and his beautiful classical compositions.  Then, unexpectedly and equally mesmerizing is the groove of jazz, improvising with the greats like Miles Davis and Chick Corea.  

Keith Jarrett is a renowned musician, thought to be one of the most prolific of the late 20th century, and considered one of the “masters of improvisation.” As described in the documentary, The Art of Improvisation, the narrator describes Jarrett: “Keith Jarrett is that rare combination, a great jazz improviser and classical pianist . . . Keith has also written classical compositions for others to play.  He has used the sounds of classical music to discover his own journey.” (, 2013)

In exploring leadership in the coming years, achieving the balance of grace in leadership is like the ability a musician has to improvise.  Distinguishing the ability of one musician to improvise from another who cannot is a matter of internalization, not memorization, of a song.  It is not a matter of notes.  It is really a sense of harmonic awareness.  It is the intimate knowledge of a song, so intimate that it allows the musicians to take a risk in the performance without being too dependent upon the composition itself.  It is really defining the difference between internalization and memorization.  To compare to Keith Jarrett, it is the unique ability to master both classical music, dependent upon notation, and jazz, dependent upon improvisation.  The ability as a leader in the coming years to balance truth and grace, structure and improvisation, policy and creative freedom is the way to release from the limitations.  The basis for innovation is not solely dependent on one or the other.  Civil rights law is policy born out of the expression of freedom from oppression.  The law protects where awareness lacks.

As a leader, where should the focus ultimately be held? Is it possible to create a safe environment where people are respected?  Is there a way to coach people into developing a mind that moves beyond the judgment of their perceptions?  Is it possible for leaders to begin to move beyond, “perception is reality” and search for truth?  Grace must be present on the journey to truth, and leaders of the future must be committed to seeking this truth.  Being a gracious leader is not weakness; it is the ability to understand that a person’s existence is not only in one moment.  Using the example of improvisation in jazz, the leader is not merely allowing creative freedom or willing to give up his or her own spotlight to allow the others to shine.   In that willingness to let go, the leader is actually pushing the other musicians to a new place.  They are not willing to settle for the learned behaviors, but rather challenging the band members to stretch themselves to grow, immediately on the spot.  At that moment, the learned knowledge becomes the basis of the innovation, and the band members, including the leader, are equals.  When that happens, the norm immediately changes and a new structure becomes your base, which then pushes each one into yet another opportunity to be challenged. 

In those moments, each of the members has a choice.  The leader is recognizing that ability to choose, and rather than fighting it, they give in to it.  This leader lets the rest of the team own it, which requires them to be willing to listen to the others.  If they are not listening intimately to where the music is going, and what each member is contributing, and they are not both self-aware and socially aware, they lose confidence and don’t play anything at all, or they hold the team back because they want to stay safe while the others are pushing forward.

Stephen R. Covey states, “If you can put the new skill-set of synergy together with the new mind-set of interdependence, you have the perfect one-two punch for achieving competitive advantage.  When you have the mind-set and the skill-set, you create effective structures, systems, and processes that are aligned with your vision and mission.” (Covey, 1996)

In exploring this idea of grace, the limited view of elegance or generosity of spirit cannot be enough in the coming years.  As stated above, improvisation certainly allows for the forgiveness of mistakes so that it frees people to actually pursue.  This type of grace is transforming if partnered with the truth.  After informally interviewing several people regarding the fit for grace in leadership, not one person was simply accepting of only one side to the story. 

Grace must be a catalyst for change.  The grace that is defined in improvisation is the challenge to allow others to exist with purpose in any given moment.  In leadership at any level, the ability to drive others toward purpose will be necessary for transformation.  The leader’s ability to discern the needs of others in the moment will drive that transformation.  Leaders must be willing to challenge the innate need for purpose rather than dwelling on the acceptance of the policy that keeps a person bound in things that essentially don’t matter or limit them from their own true capabilities.  For example, if the United States had continued to accept the law of slavery, and worked within the confines of that law, change would never have happened.  The acceptance of that law was accepting the oppression of others and not allowing them to have freedom over their own lives. 

The lack of purpose and meaning, and the willingness of organizations and societies to tolerate actions motivated by fear ultimately leads to change.  Great leaders are willing to sense this change and are willing to take risks, using deep emotional awareness centered on valuing life.   A leader maintains a healthy recognition of when people are becoming fatigued and intolerant of mindless contribution and feelings of worthlessness associated with living numb to their emotions.  A leader that will be willing to press on those emotions may have the opportunity to engage people in a revolutionary way, not simply giving them an opportunity to thrive in the workplace, but to thrive at home, and may begin to push on the nerves that will compel them to contribute meaningfully in society as a whole. 

This is moving beyond perception and into reality; the pursuit of truth, listening to the people who you are interacting with on a daily basis.  This leader is willing to graciously accept others in the moment, but be ready for anything, especially in tune when it is time for change.  It will then be critical for that leader to be fearless in leading through that change. 

It is like that of Keith Jarrett’s description of jazz improvisation:  “There’s never been a time when improvisation was given the respect it deserves. By virtue of the holistic quality of it, it takes everything to do it.  It takes real time, no editing possible.  It takes your nervous system to be on alert for every possible thing.  In a way that cannot be said for any other kind of music.” (, 2013)