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Understanding the Context of Leadership – Advice from Classic Country and Jazz Musicians

Posted by Michael Urick on Thu, Dec 15, 2016 @ 10:12 AM

As I mentioned in previous posts, music is a big passion in my life and I often try to look for linkages between music and my academic interests related to organizational behavior – including leadership studies.

Recently, I had the privilege to go see Kenny Rogers (for those who don’t know, he’s a famous country musician with several hits in the ’70s and ‘80s) at the Palace Theatre in nearby Greensburg. The Westmoreland Cultural Trust, that presented this show, always puts on great events but this one was exceptionally meaningful to me. Roger’s song “The Gambler” (1978; written by Don Schlitz) has been my favorite karaoke song for at least a decade, but the lyrics also speak to useful tips for leaders.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.”
Rogers, 1978 

Of course, Rogers (and Schlitz) are talking about playing cards within the context of the song, but they might as well also be referring to the need for leaders to understand their environments. When making decisions that impact a variety of stakeholders including employees, customers, communities, suppliers, competitors and society as a whole, organizational leaders need to know when to exert their influence and when not to (and what types of initiatives on which they should exert their influence). They need to understand what it means to make tough decisions that respect employees’ dignity, provide value to customers, treat suppliers well and provide needed products to improve society all while maintaining competitiveness in a dynamic industry. Leaders need to know what appropriate decisions are and how to advance the agendas that will improve the lives of others by reading their environment well; in essence knowing when to “hold, fold, walk away or run.” Just as card players need to read their surroundings and the other players well, organizational leaders need to understand their contexts.

Yet, understanding context can be tough for leaders. Consider the life of another famous musician: Glenn Miller. Miller was a famous big band leader and jazz musician from the 1930s and ’40s (for more information on Miller’s leadership, please see below for information about the chapter written by Dr. Therese Sprinkle and me in 2014). He failed miserably when he put together his first band because he didn’t understand the context of the music industry and society, more generally, of the time.

Glenn MillerHowever, over time, Glenn Miller grew to understand his personal strengths (he was a great organizer) and weaknesses (he was not as good of a trombone player as others) as well as the opportunities (most other bands focused on soloists rather than instrument sections playing in harmony and thus his competitors did not create “hummable” melodies) and threats (a lot of uncertainty within the context of the U.S. culture) of his context. Once he understood his context, he created and led a band that focused less on individual soloists, but more on a group of saxophonists and clarinetists playing harmoniously. Many of his songs focused a lot on Americana and ultimately set the tone for his national culture at the time.

And was he effective? YouTube “Glenn Miller” when you have time. I would be surprised if you don’t recognize at least one of his band’s songs (likely more than 70 years after it was first recorded). Miller also earned a lifetime Grammy about 40 years after his disappearance (the plane carrying Glenn Miller on his fated flight over the English Channel was never found). And his band continues to perform to this day (albeit without Miller) – in fact, the Westmoreland Cultural Trust just brought them to the Palace several months back as well!

Leadership experts have anecdotally remarked that the true sign of a good leader is that her or his organization will continue to function well without them. Miller’s band functioned the day after his disappearance and continues to function effectively to this day. In part, the Glenn Miller Orchestra functions because Miller built an effective organization because he was able to understand his context.

Although he never heard “The Gambler,” I’ll bet Glenn Miller would have loved Kenny Rogers’ song. It’s a song, and advice learned by Miller, that many organizational leaders could take to heart. As I mentioned, music is important to me on so many levels. I have looked to Miller (and Rogers) to inform my own academic interests as well as the leadership roles I have found myself in, including leading my own jazz band that plays some of Glenn Miller’s songs.

So, what do you think? Do the lyrics to “The Gambler” inspire you? How important is context to you in your leadership roles?  Do you agree that Miller was effective because of his understanding of context? Have you found inspiration in any other lyrics, musicians or other areas of pop culture? I’m always excited to hear your thoughts: please write your comments below, email me at michael.urick@stvincent.edu or find me on LinkedIn and Facebook. I hope to hear from you soon.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays! I wish the best for you and your families this holiday season!  

Michael J. Urick, PhD, MBA, MS


Works Cited 

Rogers, K.  (1978). The Gambler. Song written by Don Schlitz. From The Gambler album. United Artists/Capitol Records.

Urick, M. J., & Sprinkle, T. A. (2013).13. Glenn Miller:  leadership lessons from a successful big band musician. In Extreme Leadership: Leaders, Teams and Situations Outside the Norm (Cristina M. Gianntantonio and Amy E. Hurley-Hanson, eds.), 165-186. Edward Elgar: Northampton, MA.

Photo by Unknown - Ad on page 27 of May 16, 1942 Billboard magazine, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43240691

Topics: Michael Urick, leadership, Kenny Rogers, Glenn Miller, country music, The Gambler, jazz

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

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