Mingus was a Manager

In this great era of “leaders” and “innovators”, the word “manager” seems to get a bad rap. Lately, the idea of a manager is positioned in opposition to the idea of a leader – Managers follow rules, leaders break rules, etc. It’s often painted as a simple cog or a facilitator, which is so sad. Good managers are orchestrators. They know how to bring out the best in people and help guide them through rough situations, comparing the two is sort of a silly. I’ve always been inspired by thinking of managers as designers. (A post on Ryan’s blog this week reminded me of one of my favorite articles.)

I like that concept because it reminds me how managers use the constraints they have to effect change. They look for underlying meaning and momentum in the work and then expose it to make things happen. The best manager, just like the best designer, becomes invisible as the work gets better. In my view, they both should be very ego-less jobs. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Oddly, When I think about great managers, I usually think about Charles Mingus.

Mingus was a brilliant jazz musician, but at heart he was a manager. Not quite a people manager (he was know to be a difficult person), rather he was a manager because he had a vision for his music. He knew what his collaborators could offer and he coaxed the group into creating amazing things.

Mingus was different from most of his contemporaries, he was a band leaders first and a soloist second. The likes of Miles Davis and John Coletrane loom large in jazz history for they’re amazing instrumental abilities. Mingus made his mark by getting everyone to make music together. You’ll notice the difference if you listen. Miles Davis will have a backing band with pieces that set the stage for elaborate solos. Contrastingly, many times Mingus orchestrated everything to happen at once, this way he could create a mood and make a statement. That is the mark of an amazing manager. (And that’s no slight to Miles.)

Mingus could slowly bring together a mood, whip it into a frenzy, then help it find it’s place again as he moved the listener through many emotions…

[audio: http://colinraney.com/audio/02%20Ecclusiasties.mp3]

Or he could playfully lumber along creating infectious melodies…

[audio: http://colinraney.com/audio/02%20My%20Jelly%20Roll%20Soul.mp3]

Mingus also wasn’t above setting collaborators up to trade phrases like good friends catching up over a bottle of wine.

[audio: http://colinraney.com/audio/06%20Me%20And%20You%20Blues.mp3]

Whatever he did, he brought others talent to bear. That’s the thing, he was focused on the entire experience – just like a good designer, just like a good manager.

Mingus wasn’t the only great orchestrator, but few had his range. He’s often compared to Duke Ellington. Ellington usually played pretty safe with his arrangements, Mingus usually goes further afield (which is harder to do with a group). The important thing was that the music was never one soloist going it alone. He not only had a vision of where he should go, he knew how to make space for four or five others along the way. He made them part of the experience and that made the experience better.

For me, that’s inspiring. That is how it should be done.

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