Miles Davis - How Leaders Should React To Mistakes

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Miles Davis & Herbie Hancock

Most people might not be familiar with jazz music, or might not even like it. That’s unfortunate as there are many things investors and entrepreneurs can learn from the music form.

Herbie Hancock, a well known pianist, learned an important leadership and life lesson from Miles Davis, one of the top jazz trumpeters: great leaders understand how to react to “mistakes” of others. They make lemonade out of lemons and always find a way to make others sound good.

I remember that we were playing “So What” one of Miles’s compositions from you know the late 50s. Tony Williams was playing drums, Ron Carter bass, Wayne Shorter on saxophone and it was a really hot night. The music was was tight, it was powerful and it was innovative and fun. We were having a lot of fun and the music was on.

Tony Williams was burning on the drums. And right in the middle of Miles’s solo, when he was playing one of his amazing solos, I played the wrong chord. A chord that just sounded completely wrong. It sounded like a big mistake. I said, “God” and put my hands around my ears like this.

Miles paused for a second and then he played some notes that made my chord right. He made it correct which astounded me.

I couldn’t believe what I heard. Miles was able to make something that was wrong into something that was right with with the power of his choice of notes that he made and that feeling that he had. So I couldn’t play for about a minute, I couldn’t even touch the piano.

What I realize now is that Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened, just an event and so that was part of the reality of what was happening at that moment. He dealt with it. He found something that, since he didn’t hear it as a mistake, he felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit. He was able to do that.

That taught me a very big lesson about not only music but about life. You know we can look for the world to be as we would like it to be as individuals. You know, make it easy for me. I think the important thing is that we grow and the only way we can grow is to have a mind that is open enough to be able to accept situations, to be able to experience situations as they are and turn them into medicine. Turn poison into medicine.

Take whatever situation you have and make something constructive happen with it.

That’s what I learned from that situation with Miles.


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