“Make your partner perfect”: the best principle of Improvisation and Leadership

davis_hancock – Or what happened when Herbie Hancock performed with Miles Davis for the very first time.

At 23 years old, Herbie Hancock became part of Miles Davis‘s Second Great Quintet.

During a recent interview commemorating his Kennedy Center Honor, Herbie said during the first few months he played with Miles he was “nervous every time,” yet it was a “wonderful experience.”

“Miles was so nurturing,” he said. “He would always find a way to say something that would cause us to have to figure out what he meant. That’s what a master teacher does.”

Hancock spent five years as Davis’ master student and ended up changing the game for jazz bands. No one had ever used the keyboard like he did and does.

Hancock described when he was selected to play with Miles Davis and at their very first performance, he tells it like this: “We were in the moment, playing off each other, improvising.

“I hit a wrong chord.

It was amazing.  Miles is playing his solo, getting to the peak of his solo and then, I played this chord that was so wrong. It was so wrong.

I thought I had just, like … we had built a house of cards and I just destroyed them all, you know?  And Miles just took a breath and he played some notes that made my chord right.”

Hancock said that he couldn’t figure out how Davis did that to his sour note.

“It took me years to realize Miles didn’t judge my chord, I did,” he said.

And that’s what I love about the principle in Improvisation called Make Your Partner Perfect.  No matter what happens in the moment, we can hold our partner up, cover the “wrong” notes and make it be great.

What would our business be like if, as leaders, we lifted up our people to be right.

Because all boats rise with the tide.