Leadership Jazz: Dalio Gets the Groove Right

“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.” – Peter Drucker

Ray Dalio, billionaire founder and ex-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, built and ran the world’s largest and most successful hedge fund and is ranked among the top richest and most influential people on the planet. His father was a professional jazz musician of modest means and fun, casual demeanor. Did the apple fall so far from the tree? Not at all.

In his book Principles, Dalio describes himself as an independent thinker who never liked following instructions. (The high school yearbook quote his friends picked for him was Thoreau’s classic “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”) He liked figuring out for himself how things worked and came to the conclusion early in his career that real power is power that is exercised with others rather than over them.

Navigating the data-rich, supremely complex, ever-evolving seas of macroeconomics and global markets, his great moment of illumination came when he realized how insignificantly little he, as an individual, could ever know. He would require a profoundly different approach if he wanted to master the markets: a disciplined, mature, multi-participant, open-minded, merit-based (‘believability weighted,’ as he would describe it) decision making process that ‘maximized the odds’ of being right about bets on the future.

Dalio describes why and how he built his beautiful idea meritocracy at Bridgewater that delivered ‘meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency.’ Scrunched together into a smaller, more portable package, his philosophy could simply be described as radical collaboration. Though Bridgewater’s form of radical collaboration has been portrayed as somewhat extreme, severe, and even bordering on cultish; it is far from being the only company that has benefitted mightily from this more mature, balanced, distributed form of power, influence, and decision making.

For example, the Conscious Capitalism movement showcases many purposeful work environments that challenge and encourage team members to engage fully, contribute creatively, learn from mistakes, and grow. You see the core values of the movement — trust, empowerment, authenticity, innovation, collaboration — delivering benefits every day at Google, Costco, Starbucks, Whole Foods Market, The Container Store, Panera Bread, Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, Tata Group, UPS and many other ‘conscious’ companies.

Also, the Agile product development process empowers workers through a highly collaborative environment of self-organizing cross-functional teams. It delivers creative, innovative, timely solutions through adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement; and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change. In their role as servant leaders, Scrum Masters lead Agile teams by removing impediments, coaching participants, and modeling collaboration, trust, empathy, and balanced power.

Cooperating is not the same as collaborating. Co-operating is essentially helping others achieve their goals. Collaborating (co-laboring), involves active, creative engagement working alongside others for a shared, group outcome.

Workers cooperate; artists collaborate.

Listen to any live improvisational jazz group and you’ll hear the sounds of radical collaboration at work in real time. Each player is a master of their instrument and a respected peer artist who contributes dynamically, distinctly, and diversely to the group’s music.

Radical collaboration in music is the guitarist spontaneously riffing off the drummer’s syncopated beats, which inspires the keyboardist to briefly dive into a minor modality — none of it scored, rehearsed, or even imagined ahead of time. It is fresh, open-minded, in-the-moment, egalitarian, and empowering. Planning is minimal, ‘mistakes’ are tolerated, learning is fast. In contrast, cooperation in the live music world is more akin to the rousing (but predictable) sound blasting forth from the grid-ordered, cleanly pressed players on the field, marching and maneuvering in lockstep with the drum majors.

What meaning does leadership have in the context of radical collaboration? In a jazz group, who’s the boss?

A jazz cat will tell you (in a gravelly voice, most likely), “Get the groove right and everything else takes care of itself.” (A cheerleader management consultant might counter with, “You mean like ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’?”) The leadership style best suited for radical collaboration is the one that creates the right cultural conditions — the right groove — for optimal engagement, creativity, inspiration, and innovation. But in an improvisational musical group, who creates the groove? One could make the case, to paraphrase Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that bass.

Establishing a strong musical groove is not easy. It takes extensive musical skill and experience, confidence, technical ability, flexibility, adaptability, and ‘systems’ awareness: intense listening and moment-to-moment attention, alertness, and responsiveness. In a small band, there is usually no other member that both understands the rudiments of music and has the ideal instrument to connect the three core elements of rhythm, harmony, and melody quite as effectively as a good bassist.

She’ll have the greatest (but not the sole) influence in setting the groove and in creating the harmonic and rhythmic scaffolding that enables and encourages the other players to express their creative musical ideas.

The bass player is clearly the band’s (underappreciated!) servant leader.

The culture of radical collaboration, the live jazz vibe, that pervades many ‘woke’ companies today is redefining the role of organizational leadership. At Bridgewater, Dalio credits his success to making his passion and his work one and the same (à la Steve Jobs), working with people he wanted to work with, and creating an ‘idea meritocracy’ that delivered meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency. His tough-love leadership style excelled at connecting people, developing ideas, and tipping the odds of success in his favor.

Listening, learning, supporting, connecting, empowering, encouraging — leadership jazz is about creating and maintaining the right ambience for the best ideas to emerge through radical collaboration and a mature, balanced, merit-based distribution of power and influence.

The best servant leaders know how to establish the right cultural groove for individuals and groups to flourish. As Dalio might say it, good leaders ‘maximize the odds’ of success.

Get the groove right and everything else takes care of itself.

Step aside guitar heroes; bassists rule.