Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Structure and Improvisation

Written by: on March 14, 2015

Improvise 3

Hot and cold. Light and dark. Left brain, right brain. Structure and improvisation. In each of these pairs, we need both sides. Too much of a bad thing can kill us. Too much of a good thing can also kill us. Life is about balance. In Eastern and indigenous thought, it is all about balance. The West needs to heed these voices.

Polarities, Paradoxes, and Puzzles[1]

 All behaviors contain their opposites:

  • Hyper-inflation leads to collapse.
  • A show of strength suggests insecurity.
  • What goes up must come down.
  • If you want to prosper, be generous.


  • The feminine outlasts the masculine.
  • The feminine allows, but the masculine causes.
  • The feminine surrenders, then encompasses and wins.


  • Water wears away the rock.
  • Spirit overcomes force.
  • The weak will undo the mighty.

 Learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.

I was out of my field this week while reading Caroline Ramsey’s articles; however, after persevering, I was struck by a couple of particular points. First of all, without relational understanding and sensitivity, a manager will not be a good leader. Secondly, both structure and improvisation are necessary elements of good management. Good managers need to learn that not every plan will go according to its initial expectations. Ramsey’s students, Mike and Kieran, got that. Mike, in particular, saw the importance of understanding the importance of improvisation when he attempted to use an article on improvised jazz as a metaphor for organizing. In his leadership work with several of his clients (ward sisters), Mike was sensitive enough to move his conversations in different directions – thus improvisation. In the end, his work was successful, not because of him but because of the whole group working collaboratively.

In his fascinating book, Embracing the Unforeseen, Jazz musician and professor Dennis Plies defines improvisation:

The word “improvisation” is derived from the Latin im (not), pro (before), and visus (see), something which has not been seen in advance, hence, unforeseen and unexpected. I find the word “unforeseen” as extremely accurate and helpful in grasping the feel for the word “improvisation.” Being able to foresee something implies prearrangement, agreed upon beforehand. Sort of a done deal, it’s just waiting to be realized. In contrast, what takes place as unforeseen involves the openness to go wherever it goes in the moment. It’s unpremeditated, unpredictable, and unexpected, all suitably associated terms. Out of the process of improvisation something new and unforeseen emerges.[2]

Plies does a good job of fleshing out the roles of both structure and improvisation with jazz musicians making music, with children at play, and with people living out lives of faith. In each of these areas, there is structure before there is improvisation. Good jazz musicians know their craft and use that as a springboard into the “art” of improvisation. Children first have a sense of what the rules are, and then they joyously let their play unlock their imaginative minds. And people of faith start with an agreed upon set of premises, Scripture, before learning how to “walk in faith.” But, hopefully, they eventually learn to let go of the rules, thrusting that they truly live out their lives, not always needing a script to guide them.

So it is with good managers. They must have a plan, but be open to adapting that plan to the given situation, being sensitive to the needs of each person involved in the process and allowing each person to do his or her part in the whole project.

At the moment, I am working on a research project for my doctoral dissertation. I started this journey with a plan. But my direction has changed from its initial steps of two years ago, and it is still an unfolding process. Why? Because at least for my situation, my research is following relationships, and these relationships are being revealed as I walk forward, not before. Yes, I have a plan. But I also am open to allowing my research to evolve organically, spontaneously, improvisationally. This journey has taken me to Kiev, to Arizona and New Mexico, and to different parts of Oregon and Washington. It will also take me to Michigan, to Nebraska, and to South Dakota. I did not plan for these destinations; they opened up as I was willing to go in the direction of relational improvisation. This continues to be a fascinating journey, not only what I am learning about Native-American cultures, but also in what I am leaning about myself and about God.

I would like to close this post with one more reading from Heider’s book. It is another reminder of the importance of structure and improvisation, as well as to common-sense leadership:


 All behavior consists of opposites or polarities. If I do anything more and more, over and over, its polarity will appear.

 For example, striving to be beautiful makes a person ugly, and trying too hard to be kind is a form of selfishness.

 Any over-determined behavior produces its opposite:


  • An obsession with living suggests worry about dying.
  • True simplicity is not easy.
  • Is it a long time or a short time since we last met?
  • The braggart probably feels small and insecure.
  • Who would be first ends up last.

Knowing how polarities work, the wise leader does not push to make things happen, but allows process to unfold on its own.

 The leader teaches by example rather than by lecturing others on how they ought to be.

 The leader knows that constant interventions will block the group’s process. The leader does not insist that things come out in a certain way.

 The wise leader does not seek a lot of money or a lot of praise. Nevertheless, there is plenty of both.


[1] John Heider, The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age (New York: Bantam Books, 1988) 71.

[2] Dennis Plies, Embracing the Unforeseen: Improvisation in Life and Faith (San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014) 61and 62.

[3] John Heider, The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age (New York: Bantam Books, 1988) 3.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

7 responses to “Structure and Improvisation”

  1. Bill….
    Such a rich, thought provoking (in a good way!), and thought revealing post. Thank you! You drew out correlations from our reading and developing it within your context. This is just really good (and now I want to read that book!). The ability to operate within both structure – recognizing how and why it is needful with the comprehension to improvise reveals skill (and maturity), I am so glad you brought that out.

    Referring to the manager you wrote, “They must have a plan, but be open to adapting that plan to the given situation, being sensitive to the needs of each person involved in the process and allowing each person to do his or her part in the whole project.” Even if we are “leaders” or given a leadership title w/ responsibility of “more than managers” (thinking in a corporate structure mindset), if we are holding our responsibility with an open hand we understand the significance of managing. One of the challenges can be when the top tier leadership is detached from the management level. It confronts listening from when obligations extend to at least two fronts (shareholders, perhaps and those that “work” within). It makes me wonder about employee owned businesses (such as Red Mill in Milwaukie, OR). Is jazz improvisation creating something there that cannot be created in other business realms? And then it makes me wonder about church … what does jazz improvisation look like within the body of Christ? (no specific “need” to “answer” my questions… just pondering :).

  2. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill… great post! I love how you’ve integrated your research area in the discussion about this week’s reading. The perspective with which you write is energizing for me because you demonstrated the “relational understanding and sensitivity”, Caroline is talking about. You also affirm the need for a plan and encourage the need for flexibility and openness.

    You write, “They must have a plan, but be open to adapting that plan to the given situation, being sensitive to the needs of each person involved in the process and allowing each person to do his or her part in the whole project.”

    Great stuff! Thanks

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Michael. You are too kind.

      I found this reading a bit to academic for my liking. It took me awhile to green any substance out of the reading, but eventually I did. I am not a business-minded person. When I have time, I might read these articles again. That might be a long time in the future. Look forward to chatting again soon!

  3. Julie Dodge says:

    Thoughtful work. Bill. As you note, our “plans” change. And we must be willing to adapt in order to succeed. The good manager adapts, and also builds not just on the opposites of his own approach, but on the skills and strengths of his team’s members. If we are unable to do this, we will struggle creating positive change and practices. Nice job!

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Julie. Personally, I felt that my post lacked much depth. These were tough readings for me. I kept looking for relevance. Eventually, I did find something from the reading, but it was not what I had hoped. Again, thanks for your kind comments.

  4. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Bill, Thank you for your thoughtful blog! I agree with you on good managers—they must be open, willing to adapt, sensitive to others need, and willing to allow everyone involved in the process to do her or his part in the whole project. Some of these insights can be helpful for ministry leaders to engage and encourage believers’ use their gifts with others in their relationships. Great work.

  5. Bill, Great understanding of improvisation. Truly that is the essence of scholarship of practice that Ramsey writes about. She brings out that this scholarship of practice is interactive and shaped with interaction. It entails the use of knowledge as a tool in the interaction with the world. When she discusses social poetics she says that some of the features of this practice context learning involves physical action not just knowledge, and these actions are generative, finally these actions are frequently spontaneous rather than results of some form of premeditation. You capture the essence of her academic writing when you suggest the understanding of improvisation. It is through the relationships and social performances that we create and re-create the needed results and wisdom that helps us navigate through the many issues that we encounter in leadership and even in relationships.

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