February 1, 2023

Brad Marolf

Business & Finance Wonders

What Jazz Can Teach Business Leaders According To McGill Prof And Musician Saku Mantere

Stephanie Ricci contributed to this story.

Academics are generally considered to have their heads buried in books. Yet Saku Mantere, a well-established professor at McGill University, just released his debut album, Upon First Impression. The album has been received well, and the Canadian WholeNote magazine wrote that “Mantere’s originals are amazing […] Mantere’s music is superb.”

Originally from Finland, Mantere received his first guitar at age 11 and grew up playing occasional gigs as a semi-serious hobby before putting his musical interests on hold to pursue his academic career.

After earning a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Helsinki, he earned a doctorate in Work Psychology and Leadership from Aalto University, then known as Helsinki University of Technology.

He later moved to Montreal where he now teaches Strategy and Organization at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, and is editor-in-chief of Delve, the university’s award-winning thought leadership platform.

It was only recently that he rekindled his passion for music and began taking vocal lessons. When he’s not teaching class or doing research, Mantere now doubles as a composer, singer, and guitarist, working at the intersection of jazz and concert music.

I recently sat down with him to understand how being a musician can be helpful to business leaders. As it turns out, there is a beautiful connection between jazz and running a business that today’s leaders can put into practice.

Managing it all

When asked how he balances a blossoming academic career with being an emerging recording artist, the award-winning professor warns against the “trap of being busy.”

“We somehow convince ourselves that we’re really busy and that if we’re busy, we’re successful,” says Mantere. “I don’t think that’s the case. We’re successful when we have agency over what we do — and what we want to do in the first place!”

Part of Mantere was drawn to becoming an academic to be able to contribute to a more empathic society. According to him, academia is one of the fields that has the possibility to provide meaningful and researched answers to world issues.

He believes that artistic pursuits, however, also play a significant role towards changing the world for the better by offering an avenue for people to connect to each other by recognizing shared humanity in each other.

Between stage and classroom

For Mantere, whose research centers on organizational strategy, communication and change, there are many parallels between business studies and the arts which inform his practice.

Being on stage is not that different from how you teach,” he says. “When you enter dialogue with students, you are responding and improvising. Instead of creating art, you’re creating knowledge together.”

Spontaneous interactions, whether they are happening in a classroom or in the workplace, is a knowledge production mechanism that should not be undermined by practicing managers.

“Executives tend to call for feedback from employees, but many lack the skills and confidence to enter into dialogue”, Mantere observes. Responding to a strategy question one didn’t expect from an employee, calls for thinking fast on your feet. And who does that better than jazz musicians?

“Jazz teaches us communication in the moment,” says Mantere. “Their creativity is, to an extent, always collective because you’re creating on the spot between people.”

The improvisational characteristic of jazz is then applicable in business by being able to “take the responsibility and rise up to the challenge as a collective,” he says and continues: “Every professional needs to rely on each other and perform on the spot.”

Innovation needs boundaries

We often hear that you have to learn the rules in order to break them. By the same logic, innovation cannot take place in complete freedom.

“There’s a need for boundaries, to work within a certain space, certain limitations, certain constraints,” he says. Charles Mingus, one of the most important jazz musicians of all time, said that you can’t improvise on nothing. You have to improvise on something”, Mantere reflects.

Due to this, we can appreciate the crucial bridge between new talent to disrupt the old ways and the respect for the wisdom of those who came before.

“Young jazz musicians recognize their elders as pioneers, and established musicians constantly seek out young players to nurture in their bands. In businesses, those that are in power should have openness and interest towards the next generation, that’s how they flourish, but the next generation also should respect those with more experience as potential teachers.”

My upcoming book Generation Why: How Boomers Can Lead and Learn from Millennials and Gen Z focuses more specifically on exploring how the worldviews of different generations can shape best practices in the business world. Stay tuned for more.

You can listen to Mantere’s debut album Upon First Impression on all major streaming platforms, for instance Spotify.